The Modern Romantic

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“Do you believe in soulmates?”


My rational husband swears I asked this on our first date, but I’m sure I waited until at least our second or third. As far as I was concerned, time was a luxury I couldn’t afford.  I was already aware of at least two obstacles to our long-term viability:


  1. We were astrologically incompatible
  2. He was math-and-science, I was liberal arts


We were probably doomed. So if I was going to go on watching action movies and dealing with his weird roommate, I needed him to grasp the Fundamental Principle of Romanticism: The Girlfriend is Everything You Have Been Looking for Since Forever. Otherwise, why bother shaving my legs?


“So do you?” I was leaning against his chest, so I couldn’t see his face. I waited, feeling pressure build in my chest and behind my eyes. Shit. Shitshitshit.


He was quiet for a long time.  A looooooong time. Then:


“I think you become soul mates, you don’t start out that way. You spend time together, you get to know each other, and you make your own soulmates.”


Now, 20 years later, I can see a kind of practical romanticism in his response, but at 23, I was looking for a lot more nostril flaring. Damn it, was I The One or not?  How long did it take to make a soulmate? A couple of months? That would bring us up to Valentine’s Day — what if we hadn’t become soulmates by then? What kind of Valentine’s Day would that be? I imagined myself in a silky bathrobe from Victoria’s Secret, eating Spaghettios out of the can and watching Sleepless in Seattle alone. That’s what kind. Bullshit.


But what could I do? He was an excellent kisser and I wasn’t willing to give him up, even if he was being stubborn about declaring his undying love for me.  I would teach him. I would show him by example how to be Romantic.


And I have, but so has he shown me.


“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

~Rainer Maria Rilke, from  Letters to a Young Poet


As a young(er) woman, I wanted full possession, an exhaustive inventory of my lover’s heart and mind. And I wanted him to demand the same from me. True romance meant there could be no distance, ever.  I was desperate to know and be known, to understand and be understood.  I wanted the merging Rilke warns against, I wanted two-become-one.  Tear down all the boundaries and there was love, waiting on the other side. I believed that, thanks to a dramatic, romantic nature and seeing Titanic in the theater six times. Love was all-or-nothing: you either grabbed hands and leapt into the churning, icy Atlantic together or you died alone.


Brian, who could barely get through a single viewing of Titanic, let alone six, didn’t see it that way. “I would find another thing that was floating, tie it to hers, break off a couple of pieces to row with, and find a rescue boat,” he said after the movie. “He wasted all of his energy at the end, talking to her.”


I mean, really. Sometimes it was as if he had never spoken to a woman before.


But I couldn’t help loving him. He didn’t talk much, but he was smart and funny when he did. He was a good problem-solver and impossible to rattle. He was disciplined about his work and never complained about how much he had to do, even in the middle of a surgical residency. Best of all — though it took time and wisdom to value this about him– he  was a guardian of my solitude. He granted me the space and freedom to be wholly myself.


At first –for a long time, really– all the space he cheerfully gave me felt like disinterest, a rejection. Gradually, though,  his easy support of friendships and projects that didn’t necessarily include him made me bolder, more confident, and more willing to grant him the same independence.


And Romance, confined for so long to one kind of relationship and diminished by my possessiveness and anxiety, grew to fill the “infinite distance” between Brian and me. He loved me and I loved him. He didn’t have trouble remembering that, so what if I took my worried eyes off of our relationship for a minute?  What if I rested my gaze on the rest of my life, which had just as much of a right to grow?


When I did, the romance I had sought so desperately in my relationships showed up everywhere else –the kitchen, the garden, east-coast cities, northern lakes.  I found it in hospital rooms, in restaurants, on porches and in living rooms.


“We do not want merely to see beauty … we want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

~C.S. Lewis


That is what romance is –to become part of the beauty that surrounds us all the time, whether we are looking or not. Six months after my daughter’s brain surgery, I went up to my old summer camp to celebrate its 100tth birthday. I spent 11 summers there as a girl and a young woman — Camp Lake Hubert is what my heart looks like on the inside, I’m sure of it. My friends and I wandered up and down the old paths and sat around the campfire like we had when we were 14, sifting sand through our fingers and toes while woodsmoke perfumed our hair. My breath and pulse slowed, I slept without moving. I felt I was returning to a self that had been waiting there in the woods while I ferried my little daughter from EEGs at Children’s Hospital to surgery at Mayo Clinic. I was both a woman returning and a girl welcoming her back. I don’t know if that makes any sense — it does to me.


My friends and I were staying at my dear friend Lisa’s family lake house, right on Lake Hubert. I awoke early on the last morning of the reunion and crept through the semi-darkness with my camera. I let myself out and walked barefoot down  rough wooden steps to the dock, where the sun was just beginning to rise over the lake. I knelt on the dock and wept from relief and gratitude for that sunrise. It was all for me, I knew it.


The September air smelled of earth and metal. The sun spilled golden light on the silver lake, diamonds flashed among the mellow waves.  Like my wedding ring. I had never felt closer to the very center of my life. I was kneeling alone on the dock, but my friends were still with me. Brian was still with me. Everyone who had watched over me during the horrible months of my daughter’s seizures and tests and surgery was still with me. I had dozens of soul mates, whether or not they believed in the idea or would say I was theirs. I didn’t need them to.


Was that morning really romantic? Is that the right word? My people –and especially Brian– are present in all of the places I love and all of the places I love are present in them. They are always with me, part of the beauty surrounding me even when I am alone. There are infinite distances between us, yes, let us allow them to be there as Rilke urges. Let us “see each other as a whole and against an immense sky.” There is romance in that. I can agree to that and Brian taught me how.


Yet let us also invite each other now and then into the infinite distances between us, the parts we don’t easily share. The wildest, most vulnerable kinds of beauty live there in those spaces — the parts of ourselves we protect most fiercely because they have made us whole and recognizable to ourselves. That is right and good …we don’t have to dissolve into each other for love. But we do have to know each other. We can’t hide out in those infinite distances between us, floating alone in our imaginations while those we love stand on the opposite shore, guarding our solitude. The beauty we want to be part of includes each other. We can’t be whole without each other. That is what I know.


© 2015 Marta C Drew

Growing Older



Pamela Park October 30
©2015 Marta C Drew


When I think of childhood, I remember sitting on the jungle gym in my dad’s back yard with Betsy Burritt, poking straws into whole oranges to suck out the juice and pitching the rest over the fence until my dad caught us.


When I think of childhood, I picture the bubble lights on my dad’s Christmas tree, the bright pink, tart applesauce GramBea used to make with crabapples, the Anne Murray album my mom played while we dusted and changed the sheets on my sofa bed, and summers at Camp Lake Hubert.


And when I think of childhood, I think of a spot on the playground at Highlands Elementary School in 1981, where I faced two bright, charismatic, mean-spirited girls in my class:


“Does your mom have a boyfriend?” one of them asked, looking at the other and scrunching up her nose.


“Yes. Steve.” Voice steady, no tears, voice steady, no tears, voice steady, no tears. I chanted this in my head as I spoke, never doubting their right to an answer. I couldn’t walk away — I wasn’t allowed. Their power was absolute.


“I bet they’re humping right now.” Delighted with their audacity, secure in their unbroken, conventional families, they shrieked and giggled while I waited for the bell to ring and end this. Their mothers were at home, doing whatever their kind of mother did. Mine was downtown in her law office, probably humping her boyfriend. Because that was what divorced, working mothers did according to everyone in 1981.


And there it was: my child’s perception of the difference between kid and adult: I was at the mercy of my circumstances and she was fully in charge of hers.


Furious, wanting to punish her for my humiliation at school, I confronted my mom in our little one-bedroom apartment that night. “Do you and Steve Do It?” I asked her, narrowing my eyes, spitting out the words, waiting for hot tears of shame to slide down her cheeks. As they should.


But my mother was a self-actualized modern woman, not about to let her nine-year-old daughter degrade her. “Do you mean do we make love? Yes, we do,” she said, completely, horribly, unbearably at peace with her choices.


And there it was: my child’s perception of the difference between kid and adult: I was at the mercy of my circumstances and she was fully in charge of hers.


I think about that, now that I am ostensibly a grownup myself. I am not fully in charge of anything. The life choices I have so carefully made come with all kinds of circumstances that bring me to my knees. I am neither self-actualized nor modern by anyone’s standards and I am certainly not a grownup, because nobody should be. “Grownup” implies that the period of development is over, but growth is possible right up until the moment our souls leave the earth. We talk about childhood in terms of growing and adulthood in terms of aging, but aging is just change on the world’s terms. Growth is change on ours. Any child, under the wrong conditions, can age and any adult, under the right ones, can grow.


There were at least two more years after that scene on the playground of chasing the mean girls, begging for their friendship, trying to buy their favor with gifts and loyalty they hadn’t earned, inviting them to parties without getting invited back, selling out my true friends, before I finally began to grow out of that. Until then, I was only aging.


Even now, having just turned 43, I catch myself getting intimidated sometimes by the mean kids. I still have a hard time in the company of certain people, keeping my voice steady and my tears in check. But then I remember I don’t have to answer to those who want to hurt me for sport. I remember that I am allowed to walk away. I am not a grownup, but I’m growing.


When I was little, I watched the adults around me and pieced together an idea of life as a full-grown person: I would stay up late eating M&Ms and watching T.V. like my dad; I would work in an office and attend orchestra concerts every weekend like my mom; I would play tennis down at the park like Grandma and Grandpa Thacher and host big, wonderfully loud Christmas dinners; I would sit quietly in my den at night like Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek and pare an apple,  the peel falling in one long, whole, vivid spiral from their sure hands. That was my idea of how to be a grownup.


I am not a grownup, but I am not a child, either. I still carry the weight of my circumstances, but I carry it better. I carry it smarter.


Of course my perception changed as I grew. The benefits of adulthood evolved in my mind from eating M&Ms and playing tennis to living in my own space and choosing the people in it. Growing older stopped being about perks and started being about power. Year by year, I claimed  more of a say in how I spent my time and with whom. I dropped clarinet and started singing. I let go of friends who consistently hurt me, even if it meant being alone. I stopped begging for love from boys or men who didn’t freely offer it. There is still meanness to confront, both in myself and in others. People will die, blessings will come and go, mistakes will be made, but as long as I am growing, none of it can degrade me.


I am not a grownup, but I am not a child, either. I still carry the weight of my circumstances, but I carry it better. I carry it smarter. I know what friendship is supposed to feel like and I know how to make decisions I can live with, even if I’m never really at peace with my choices and even if I’m never fully in charge.


An adult, according to most definitions, is someone fully grown and developed. If that is true, then let me become one only when my life is over. Until then, let me grow older. Let me keep the oranges and bubble lights, the applesauce, music, and summers at camp. Let me cast off the weight of powerlessness. Let me not age but keep growing, find peace with my choices, until my life is done and falls in one long, whole, vivid spiral from my sure hands.


Begging the Question


Last Day at Eden Lake
© 2015 Marta C Drew


We do all of the laundry. Imagine if the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Rockies were all connected and made out of inside-out sweatshirts, Pixar jammies, and tiny Hello Kitty panties. That’s most of our laundry rooms on most days.


We cook. We spend hours, days, weeks, months, YEARS collecting recipes, then shop for the obscure ingredients, then defend what we spent on them, then prepare the meal, then –most of the time –clean up. This is what we hear if the meal is phenomenal:


“Good dinner Honey.”


Then someone farts, then someone burps, then everyone talks about how AWESOME that was, how they can’t BELIEVE how CRAZY EXCELLENT that fart-and-burp combo was. AMAZING. This is what we hear if the meal was damn good:


“It’s okay, but not really my favorite.” This from our nine-year-old son, who tells us in the voice he will one day use to break up with unstable girlfriends.


Just use the education, the talent, the imagination, style and mind-blowing sexiness that got you here, on this bathroom floor with this pee and these gloves (I hope) and this toilet, and get it done.


We keep the house clean while our people work (harder than they’re ever willing to work at anything else) to keep the place looking like a low-budget zoo habitat. Why is that sticky? What kind of crumbs are those? What is that weird smell? Best not to ask. Just use the education, the talent, the imagination, style and mind-blowing sexiness that got you here, on this bathroom floor with this pee and these gloves (I hope) and this toilet, and get it done.


We civilize:

“That is a sofa, not a jungle gym. Please refrain from jumping on it.”

“If my cooking makes you feel like you have to throw up, please do so in the bathroom. Thank you.”

“I’d rather not see that far into you.”

“I’m afraid you’ll find that fart jokes, like houseguests and fish, start to grow old after about day three.”

“Etiquette dictates that you should not finish your dinner before the person who cooked it for you has begun.”

“The world is not your petting zoo …there are some things and people we need not touch to enjoy.”

“Try not to eat anything you found in your nose.”

“You are not the center of the universe. That position is held by the sun …the exquisitely silent sun.”


This is not an exhaustive list.


We grow people. First we grow them inside of us, then push them out (I don’t want to talk about it) and grow them on the outside. Some of us breastfeed, some of us formula feed, some of us do both. Either way, we’re up several times a night feeding/diapering/burping/checking to make sure they’re breathing.


As they grow, we read article after article about the scientific link between child nutrition and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between childhood depression and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between child stupidity and our shitty mothering. We make our own baby food with fruits and vegetables we grew ourselves (lots of spare time in this job) from heirloom organic seeds we found in the Sundance catalog for $700.00 per envelope. We harvest the vegetables, put them through a food mill, a food processor, a strainer, and finally into a ceramic personalized bowl that seemed like a great idea when we were pregnant. From there, our stupid baby (our fault) throws the whole mess on the floor.


Then we cry and give them a dusty jar of Gerbers, which they devour as if Chef Thomas Keller made it himself.


We agonize over the right friends, the right schools, the right combination of athletics and artistic enrichment. We read to them, make sure they do their homework, sign them up for camp. We douse them in sunscreen and bugspray only to find out in August that everyone else knew in June that the brand of sunscreen we use is full of potent carcinogens. Then we self-flagellate.


As they grow, we read article after article about the scientific link between child nutrition and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between childhood depression and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between child stupidity and our shitty mothering.


We check daily for lice, rashes, viruses, depression, tumors, drug abuse, seizures, eating disorders, anxiety, and whatever else is going around. We volunteer at school (but not too much), we get involved with sports (but not too much), we show up at every poetry reading, tipi-making event, book club, swim meet, hockey game, glockenspiel recital, and gallery opening to cheer and take a thousand digital photos, which we immediately put into custom photo books for the grandparents. We forget to order one for ourselves.


When they’re sick or injured –whether it’s bad or not– we read and sing and carry them, though they’re much too big to be carried and we’ll need months of chiropractic work afterwards, for what feels like miles through schools, across fields, malls, museums, hospitals until they feel better, falling asleep in our shaking arms. We hold them down for immunizations or IV inserts or basic dental work. We crawl in bed with them at 3:30 am to scratch their backs while they cough so hard they almost throw up. We tell them for the thousand-and-tenth time that they’re safe and cozy in their beds; the “funder” won’t hurt them.


We do all of this –or most of it– gladly, grateful for the experience, for the infinite expansion of our hearts and minds. But it does beg the question:


Why, whywhywhy, WHY, when people ask us if we work, do we keep saying no?


Drewlets together Easter 2010



Canoe Bay Organic Garden Summer 2015


Faith is a discipline –difficult and often boring. I ask for what I want –opportunity, love, rescue, relief — and settle in to wait for an answer. It’s not so bad at first. Maybe I play a little Tetris Battle or Bejeweled Blitz on the computer, maybe I spend a weekend watching the weird plastic Food Network Barbie robots cook pasta and bake cakes everyone knows they would never really eat in real life (bitches). Maybe I have a good cry, eat a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, write about it, take a nap.


At some point during my wait, I usually go into the kitchen where the acoustics are particularly good (I really will miss that when we leave this house) and sing all the Paul Simon songs I know, which is most of them. Sometimes I change the lyrics a little bit –I’m good at rhythm and language –and sometimes I experiment with harmony. Sometimes I push my voice as far as it will go (which is not far at all) and sometimes I keep it soft. I never let anyone see or hear me –there are some truly horrible notes and some rather crass language; Paul Simon fans might be genuinely offended. I bet Paul himself would kind of love it though. As an artist, you want to know your work lives and breathes in other people, kind of like an organ donation.


While I wait, I try to tell myself that God heard me and is processing my request. I picture bored angels in a Heavenly government office building, drinking lukewarm coffee and gnawing on bagels –they’re the ones who just barely made it in (I’ll be one of them someday if I’m lucky). At about this point, all of my conflicting spiritual training –both formal and self-taught– starts echoing in my head:


Can I do a little feng-shui to help the cause here, or is that too witchy? Should I pray directly to the little plastic statue of Saint Joseph that I ordered from Amazon and buried upside down in my back yard to help me sell this house or is that considered idolatry? Since praying to saints is a Catholic thing to do, would it help to make the sign of the cross first? Or would that be frowned upon since I’m more of a Congregationalist now? Does my spotty church attendance count against me when I ask for help? Should I be bothering God with my suburban real estate request when so many of His people are crying out to Him in loneliness, starvation, poverty, illness? I don’t have the right to ask for this …I already got to keep Caroline.


As an artist, you want to know your work lives and breathes in other people, kind of like an organ donation.


It would help if I knew God better. This is not from lack of trying –I talk to Him all the time. I just never know how to decode the answers. Here, again, my convoluted religious history gets in the way; I have pictured everyone from Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia to Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino to Chow Yun Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.Which version is correct? Nobody knows. God could really be much more like Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia. That would actually make all kinds of sense.


But I don’t know…I don’t know a whole lot about who I’m talking to and I don’t know how He sees me. I HOPE He likes me (I believe He loves me) and I HOPE He sees me trying to do the right thing, the loving thing, the brave thing, but I don’t know. I have a hard time forgiving myself for my mistakes, so I can’t ever really believe others are willing to forgive me either. Especially God, who can read my judgy, dirty, arrogant mind and my fearful, desperate, jealous heart.


My dad, who tried valiantly for at least the first 15 years of my life to shape me into a decent Catholic (but ultimately failed) was the one to tell me about the Saint Joseph statue thing. I told him I’d think about it and then called him a couple of days later to let him know I had ordered one. “I figure why not?” I said.


“Well it’s not about asking ‘why not,’ Dear,” he said in his I-love-you-but-you’re-SO-WRONG voice. “It’s about having some faith, asking for help, believing you’re worthy of that help.”


“That’s hard for me,” I said, surprised and irritated that I suddenly felt like crying (a mysteriously common development when I’m talking to my dad). “‘Dear Heavenly Father, please grant me a comfortable and tasteful house with a soaking tub in the master suite, a screened porch, and double ovens. Amen.’ I can’t pray for that. I can’t stand people who pray for that.”


“You know that’s not what you’re praying for, Marta,” my dad said softly. “There’s nothing shallow about this request. You’re praying for relief –for your whole family– from all that has happened to you while you’ve been living in that house. Don’t you want your children to ask you for help when they need it? Of course you do –you don’t ask yourself if they deserve it, you just help. God wants you to ask. He wants you to be happy.”


I have a hard time forgiving myself for my mistakes, so I can’t ever really believe others are willing to forgive me either. Especially God, who can read my judgy, dirty, arrogant mind and my fearful, desperate, jealous heart.


Believing that is where faith begins for me, where discipline comes in. My happiness has always seemed beside the point in the same way that the Mona Lisa’s happiness seems beside the point. I have faith in God, I believe He’s always there, listening and watching, and I believe he has created a beautiful, heartbreaking, playful, ultimately triumphant, and consistently meaningful life for me. He is the original Artist. I have faith that I’ll get my opportunities, my love, my rescues and relief –sometimes just the way I ask for them and sometimes not. I have faith that things will always change and that I will be able to endure the changes.


But I have a hard time believing I’m allowed to make changes or ask for them myself. I don’t know where this particular spiritual belief comes from –this idea that my life is a painting or a play or a song God wrote and which nobody should try to alter. It may be more of an artistic belief than a religious one. Obviously I change God’s masterpiece all the time with my selfishness or my weakness or my doubts, but my intention is always to restore the original work –return to the original story or melody. I’M not supposed to muck it up with my shallow human desires. Who walks up to a Picasso or a Wyeth with a paintbrush and some new ideas?


Of course this painting is of ME, this play is written for ME, the song is about ME; why wouldn’t I add my own voice to it? If I believe Paul Simon would get a kick out of the liberties I take with his work, why can’t I believe God would welcome my experiments with His? Why can’t I believe that He wants me to paint my own portrait, write my own story, sing my own song?


He does. He expects this of me. He has faith in me.


Shoulder Shrugger

English Ivy


My mom says she wants to come back in her next life as a shoulder shrugger. The idea has its merits. Wouldn’t it be lovely to see a note come home from school with apostrophes in the plurals, the word “you’re” spelled “your,” exclamation marks at the end of every sentence!…and shrug my shoulders?


Or get mowed down in the produce aisle by a plasticized suburban mommy robot –dressed to the nines, obviously up since 4:30 am working out/showering/blow-drying/waxing/lasering/spackling– teetering around the grocery store on a Wednesday morning in $400.00 shoes, cooing to her badly behaved children, chewing gum loudly and with her mouth wide open– and shrug my shoulders?


Or listen to the strivers who don’t like to cook tell me how they spent their children’s college fund on a state-of-the-art, custom-designed, professional chef’s dream kitchen with a steam-injected oven, temperature-controlled wine storage, and a hood that looks like architectural salvage from the Death Star…and shrug my shoulders?


Wouldn’t it feel better to let the thoughtless, selfish, hypocritical, know-it-all, faux-philosophical, pseudo-spiritual jerks of the world just pass through my life and shrug my shoulders?


Or shrug my shoulders at passive aggression, rational responses to emotional situations, Center of the Universe Syndrome, and those traitorous bitches who worship men and castigate women?


Yes, that would probably feel better.


Wouldn’t it feel better to let the thoughtless, selfish, hypocritical, know-it-all, faux-philosophical, pseudo-spiritual jerks of the world just pass through my life and shrug my shoulders? Shrug my shoulders at speeding tickets, Newt Gingrich, and canned cranberries? Shrug my shoulders at the decline of common courtesy? At imitation vanilla?


What if I just shrugged my shoulders every time I felt thrown away or taken for granted or misunderstood?


I do need to shrug my shoulders at all the maidenhair ferns I have murdered over the years; I don’t think ANYONE can keep those things alive outside of a greenhouse.


I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the hard-core Swedish version) without having read the book first and I will never ever ever get those rape scenes out of my mind. What if I could shrug my shoulders at images like that?


This life matters to me  –all of it. Everything I taste and everyone I meet and everything I see and hear and experience matters to me.


Life would be easier, I’m sure, but I can’t shrug my shoulders. I don’t want to– even if getting upset or irritated makes me look hypersensitive or angry or intolerant, which isn’t fair, which bothers me too.


This life matters to me  –all of it. Everything I taste and everyone I meet and everything I see and hear and experience matters to me. I’m an easy target for hyper-rational, dispassionate types; I’m an easy target for people who still care about being cool; I’m an easy target for those who know how to detach, because I don’t. I engage every time.


I actually love that quality in myself –it’s the reason my life is so full of beauty and meaning and love. It comes with a price: looking foolish, feeling exposed and vulnerable. But I’m used to that. I can shrug my shoulders at that.



Jessica Heldman and Marta Drew


I met Jessica in fifth grade, in Mr. O’Donnell’s class. Mr. O’Donell’s classroom management strategy boiled down to a stopwatch and the misty promise of a trip to Wendy’s on a school day if we could keep the time spent misbehaving to a minimum. I am sure Jess and I rolled our eyes at this, but ours was never merely a giggle-behind-the teacher’s back and shop for earrings kind of friendship –our connection was about shared experience and understanding.


We were war buddies from the start. The enemy wore Guess jeans, Esprit sweaters, and the Little Orphan Annie perm that was mysteriously popular at the time.  They whispered threats down into our foxholes and trenches; they invited us to peace talks they never planned to attend; they prowled the halls, the library, the bathrooms and schoolyard like snipers –nowhere was safe.  We huddled behind playground equipment or next to the building, trembling with anxiety and righteous indignation. What made girls act like this? We couldn’t imagine, so we talked –about her years at private school, my parents’ divorce, whether the trip to Wendy’s would ever really happen (it did; Jessica was absent that day).


On the days Jessica wasn’t at school, my senses buzzed from overstimulation. I projected my paranoia onto the apathetic kid who stored his boogers on an index card in his desk, onto fellow victims, onto Mr. O’Donnell himself. It was all very Apocalypse Now.  Jessica was more loyal than I was at first, so the friendship benefited me more than it did her.


Jessica feels things like I do and she’ll go ahead and say it: “What is going ON? Why do I have to accept this?”


I’m part Gypsy, part WASP, which means my battle instincts have always been convoluted –part of me wanted to cut the little bitches with a pearl-handled knife, cursing their families down through the generations; the other part wanted to insult their taste in art and music and imply that they came from new money. I usually ended up throwing my own allies under the bus in my confusion and I’m sure Jessica was one of them, but we stayed close –we understood each other.


As we got older –she experimenting with cigarettes and Children’s Theater, I reading dirty novels and stealing change from my stepdad to buy Domino’s pizzas after school –our enemy shifted from the garden-variety alpha-girl to our crippling self-doubt. Who was going to tell us whether or not we were pretty? How much would electric blue mascara and zinc-pink lipstick help? What in the hell were those stupid 4’3″ junior high boys LOOKING FOR?


We lay in her room on Camelback Drive asking these questions over and over again. We didn’t get answers, but knowing that Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were struggling with some of the same issues helped a little bit. Having each other helped more. She made me laugh so hard –she still does.  More than that, though, Jessica feels things like I do and she’ll go ahead and say it: “What is going ON? Why do I have to accept this?”


That shouldn’t be so hard to find, but of course it is.


I’ve been in and out of touch with Jessica over the years –a friendship this long will always have its seasons, so I don’t think either of us worries about it. Sometimes I go find her, sometimes she comes to find me, but we’ll always be able to reconnect because we’re the same in all the important ways –in temperament, values, sincerity, and history.


I’m thinking about her because we talked tonight. I hadn’t heard her voice in a while, so I had that time-travelly feeling I tend to get when I talk to someone I knew in childhood or adolescence about how the kids and spouses are doing. For a second it feels like we’re pretending, talking about what we imagine life with husbands and children would be like. But then the tide comes back in and we’re talking about grownup stuff like how it feels to send the kids off to school for the first time or how to balance what we give our families materially with what we give them spiritually. And now I feel time-travelly again, because though we may not have talked about these particular topics as we hid from the alpha girls on the playground, we would have talked about their 10-year-old equivalents, like how it would feel to make a mean girl cry for the first time and how to balance who you want to be with who you have to be.


I hope you have a friend like this, one who’s always in it with you, who is scared of and inspired by the same things you are year after year, who is willing to sit talking with you while you work it all out, trembling with anxiety and righteous indignation until you don’t know whether you’re 10 or 17 or 38. It doesn’t matter as long as you know you’re not alone.



It Gets Better


Are you out there? Are you listening to me? Listen to me when I tell you it gets better. Listen to me when I tell you I know what it’s like to have a permanent stomachache for months –YEARS– because someone is bullying you, because every day at school or work or home or all three is an anxiety dream. Are you good enough? Are you smart or beautiful or successful or popular or thin enough? You suspect you’re not.


But you ARE.


You wouldn’t believe some of the people I know who have felt this way, especially in junior high and high school. People with gorgeous, powerful voices; people with perception and insight; people who can understand complex math equations; people who sing opera; people who are brave enough to keep falling in love; people who are creative and sensitive and brilliant. People like you.


You deserve love and support and freedom. You will have those things. You will.


It gets better. Every year that passes means knowing more, understanding more, having more power over your own life. You’re going to learn who’s worth listening to, you’re going to learn who’s worth fighting for, you’re going to learn who’s worthy of your love. You’re going to learn that one of those people is you. Being bullied is an awful hell; nobody deserves it. You don’t deserve it. You deserve love and support and freedom. You will have those things. You will.


For now, listen to music and paint your paintings or write your stories or build your race car. Feel your loneliness, acknowledge it, find a safe place to be angry about it, then cry and release it. Pour it into your dance or your songwriting or your running or biking. Use it as fuel to propel you forward, away from any belief that your current loneliness defines you. It doesn’t. Your ability to love defines you. Your willingness to love defines you –and it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight or can’t decide. The world needs your kind of love –it’s important, so stick around. It gets better.