A long time ago, my Step-Dad said to me, “You won’t be able to keep eating like that when you get older.”
At the time, it pissed me off. I was like, What does he know? Who is he to tell me how I can and can’t eat?
And, in point of fact, there were a lot of things he didn’t know — which, if we’re really honest with ourselves, is pretty normal even for parents who live with their kids, and my Step-Dad wasn’t living with us yet at the time (in fact, he wasn’t even officially my Step-Dad yet, though he’d been in my life for several years by then). Kids are independent beings — the more so they older they get — and while it’s important to know the important stuff, it’s impossible to know all the stuff.
If I remember correctly, I was working my way through an entire stack of Saltine crackers, rabbit- (or possibly typewriter-)style: gnawing my way horizontally across the cracker, then back the other way, until each cracker was gone.
Basically that’s what I lived on during the day — Saltines, ramen noodles, Chunky soup, sometimes hot dogs, the occasional grilled cheese sandwich(1).
- True story: it took me until I was like 18 to figure out that if you put butter in the pan or on the outside of the bread, your grilled cheese sandwich will taste a bazillion times better. I persisted in not understanding this even though I regularly ordered clam rolls or hot dogs at Friendly’s largely because I loved what they did with the buns. Apparently, I imagined that this was some kind of unknowable Restaurant Magic. Seriously, childhood self: WTF?
I mean this, by the way, more or less literally. This was during a long stretch (read: my entire life) during which I found it nearly impossible to fall asleep before 2 AM and thus rarely woke up with enough time to eat breakfast; during which, to compound matters, I found most of the offerings of my school’s cafeteria singularly inedible (okay: in fact, I had never found school cafeteria food at all edible). Had it not been for the deli cart that sold little sandwiches on Kaiser rolls, I would have eaten literally nothing during any given school day.
So, basically, I would come home and shove Saltines (or ramen, or Chunky soup, or hot dogs, or… and almost always or rather than and, by the way) into my face because I was more or less starving. But, of course, my Step-Dad didn’t know that. He came from a world in which kids eat breakfast at home and lunch at school and maybe a snack in the afternoon. He had no way of knowing that one of those things wasn’t happening at all and the other was happening, but inadequately.
And I had no way of explaining any of this, because it was all just normal to me. I didn’t think there was anything weird about the fact that I never managed to fall asleep before 2 AM, for example — that’s just how it had always been. Your own normal is your own normal, and as a kid it’s not always easy to tell when your normal, like, maybe isn’t.
Normal, that is. It’s still yours.
Anyway. I digress.
So, basically my immediate response, because I’m a hot-headed little prick and frankly it tends to be my go-to, was anger. I did not welcome what felt like unfair and undue criticism from someone who still, at the time, seemed like an interloper(2).
- This wasn’t, by the way, his fault: I think he did a very reasonable job, under the circumstances, trying to integrate into a family in which it is both fair and actually pretty accurate to say that the kids had more or less been raised by cats up until then. In case you’re wondering, cats don’t do a great job teaching you how to human. I love cats, but in some ways they make lousy humans. Anyway, my sister and I weren’t having any of it.
In fact, all I heard was unwelcome criticism. I didn’t hear the part that went unsaid: that this guy, in fact, actually cared about me.
The content of the message, of course, is debatable in 2016, in a world in which we’re beginning to see the question of body diversity very differently than we did when I was 12 or what have you … though I suppose a steady diet of Saltine crackers is probably less than ideal from a nutritional perspective, at any rate.
Even in the last few years, we’ve really begun to rethink the way we approach nutritional issues with kids (if not, sadly, so much with adults). We recognize that, in a world already rife with soul-destroying messages about size and weight, we have to be really thoughtful about how we talk to them about food and body size and everything in that whole arena.
So surely there could’ve been a more body-positive way to have that conversation — one with a little more “Hey, Saltines are great, but you could probably use some hummus or something to go with them so you don’t get scurvy, because scurvy is going to make gymnastics/skiing/horsebackriding/dancing pretty hard,” and a little less, “Whoa, there, buddy — you’ve gotta learn to slow down, or you’re going to get fat when you’re older,” with all its unspoken implications about the validity of fat bodies.
But, at the end of the day, cultural baggage notwithstanding, there was that other, more important message — the one that’s so hard to hear, so much of the time, when the people who love us offer what they very sincerely intend as constructive criticism.
It’s the message that goes, “Hey, I want you to be healthy and happy, because I care about you, and I want you to avoid these pitfalls that I’ve fallen into myself.”
Things have changed a lot in the intervening years. My Dad died when I had just turned eighteen. My Step-Dad was an unexpected ally: he understood my hurt, my anger, and why I wandered around wearing my Dad’s Air Force jacket all the time. My Mom and Step-Dad married when I was nineteen (like so many other important events in my life, including my own birth, that involved a major blizzard: does anyone wonder why I scheduled my own wedding for May?). My sister and my Step-Dad reached a detente, then an accord.
I realized, most importantly, that my Step-Dad makes my Mom happy, and that they work well together, and that, in the long run, that’s what matters.
We are still a family that talks in ellipses; a family in which so much is left unsaid. After a while, you learn to kind of hear between the lines. You figure out that, sometimes, “Hey, you should put something warmer on,” really means, “I love you; don’t get frostbite.” That, sometimes, the Yankee stiff upper lip makes it hard to pronounce the words.
Not to say that everything’s perfect now. On our trip to Marco Island, I was kvetching about my eternal nasal congestion and how it makes sleeping difficult, and Step-Dad piped in with, “Especially when you get older, you should make sure to get checked for sleep apnea.”
From somewhere in the depths of my psyche, my preteen self awoke and bristled and almost said something like, “OMG DAD SRSLY?!!!”
And then I took a breath and realized that I was missing, once again, the thing that went unsaid: “Hey, I’ve had a couple of friends who’ve really suffered with this thing. I care about you, I worry about you, I don’t want you to have to go through that.”
I’m not sure if I gracefully said, “Oh, thanks, yeah, good idea, I will.” I think I said something more like, “Oh, yeah, I know a couple people with sleep apnea, it sucks.” I don’t actually remember, because I was really kind of busy being annoyed at myself for being annoyed in the first place.
But I hope that, whatever words made it out of my mouth, that my Step-Dad heard the things I left unsaid.
That he heard, “Thank you. I love you, too. That means a lot.”
…But first, a quick update: I am definitely feeling yesterday’s aerials class (though not excessively) in the muscles that need work. Excellent.
Now, on to a reflective post I wrote last night:
My father died when I eighteen.
We’d had a rocky time for most of my life — Dad was a rocky man, like the shore is rocky off Acadia in Maine. Difficult, sometimes frightening, often magnificent. Those last two years of his life, though, we had a pretty great relationship — also rocky, in its own way, and full of secret tides and undercurrents, but also magnificent.
I didn’t know what Dad made of me then. It didn’t really occur to me to wonder. Dad didn’t raise us to care what he thought: he wanted us, instead, to be singularly, incontrovertibly ourselves — and he wanted us to prove it.
So it surprised me, tonight, as I lie here reading, to find myself wondering what Dad would make of me now; what he’d make of the sometimes-precarious route I’ve carved out trying to figure out how to be what I am.
The answer is still, “I don’t know.”
I kind of like to think he’d like where I’m going now — launching myself from the springboard of academia into a frankly-kind-of-weird career, learning circus arts, turning myself into a dancer, tilting at windmills.
I had the kind of Dad who would have been secretly happy to see his kids run off and join the circus, even though he’d have chewed us out first, probably to ferret out and destroy any trace of cowardice or cliché. He would want us to go knowing in our hearts that we are born to join the circus, not to go because it seemed less awful than some other thing.
I realize now that was part of his rockiness: our Dad had a poet’s intolerance for falsehoods. He tolerated them. no better in himself than in anyone else. He didn’t care what you did: he cared why. And it wasn’t an affectation — it was his nature, like it’s the nature of the Maine coast to be hard and high and beautiful.
I couldn’t see all this before. I guess that’s how it works, though: as a kid, you see your parents through a different lens than you do as an adult. As an adult, some things look different; some things don’t.
I have always said that my Dad married my Mom’s family, and now I think I understand what I mean. He saw in them a kind of abiding and unselfconscious fidelity to their own natures. They were all as different as days, but they — especially Grammy, Mom’s mother — were all unshakeably themselves. Dad loved and admired all of them, regardless of the divorce.
Even Mom, in her long, unhappy years of restraint, being a Serious Woman with a Serious Job, was never untrue to herself. The painful part, I guess, must have been how half of her had to lie more or less dormant in those days, bursting out here and there and slowly accumulating momentum and force and life in the form of the beautiful garden that slowly ate first the back yard, then the front, a literal inflorescence of the soul.
I don’t know what Dad thought of me, that last year of his life. I was still casting around, searching for an exoskeleton, an identity I could step into I guess so I wouldn’t have to do the hard and lonely work of being who I was. Having felt the cutting edge of loneliness too long, I wanted to be loved. I would have said I wanted to be loved for who I was, and would’ve believed it, but I was wrong. I was still a long, long way from there.
I won’t say that I never do that anymore: identity is a nebulous thing, and I still want to be loved — but I am loved, as well and unconditionally as I believe a human being can be loved.
It’s easier to be brave, because of that.
So I still don’t know exactly what my Dad would make of me, if he were here — but I have begun to think he’d like what I’ve become, although he might not say it.
Not that he would mean any harm; not that he wasn’t brave enough. But his heart and mind were always two steps down the road, preparing to head off half-truth and hypocrisy.
I think he’d grill me about every single one of my cherished suppositions.
And I hope, were he alive to rake those coals, that I would have the courage and good sense to meet him toe-to-toe and love him for it.
My husband has been obsessing about creating, for us, a giant Postmodern Hippie Bus. The idea is that we’ll live in it and roam around the country (or, at any rate, to roam sometimes — perhaps more to be able to roam).
I think it would be great if we could even roam beyond the country — roam to Canada, roam to Mexico. I guess we’d have to park it to roam to another continent, but there’s a contingency for that sort of thing in the works as well.
I call it a Postmodern Hippie Bus because the vision is a little more IKEA catalog than Mother Earth News. We are only quasi-hippies, but there’s room in the universe of traveling people for all kinds.
Anyway, up until now, the Postmodern Hippie Bus has been entirely theoretical — diagrams, research, lots of scoping out YouTube videos about tiny homes and living in buses.
But today, we bought the kitchen sink!
At least I assume it’s the kitchen sink. Maybe it’s the bathroom sink? I don’t know. I didn’t ask.
But it was at the Habitat Restore, and Denis had seen it before, and he said, “Oh, my bus sink is still here,” and I said, “You’re going to buy it, right?” and he said, “Oh — well, I didn’t know if you’d want me to.”
I figured, it’s a nice sink, it’s a good price, and we’re definitely doing the bus thing at some point — so buying it makes sense.
So we bought the sink.
Somehow, that makes the Bus seem like something that really is actually going to happen someday, maybe sooner than I was thinking.
And that seems pretty cool.
The other cool thing is the process of designing the interior living — of really thinking about how we live, how we use space, what we want in our space, and so forth.
This is something I’m kind of doing in my own life right now.
Living with bipolar disorder — finally being willing to look it in the eye and call it by its name and accept it for what it is — has forced me to sit down and really think about my plans, goals, and dreams, and what is and isn’t possible for me.
I has forced me to think about how I want to arrange the furniture of my own being; if you will.
For a long time, I felt like saying, “I am not able to do this thing or that thing” was like quitting, or admitting defeat, or whatever. I think I saw it — for myself, but not for anyone else — as a sign of weakness.
I’m starting to see that it takes a lot of strength to accept your own limitations, and that transcending them doesn’t always mean living as if they don’t exist (though sometimes it can).
Rather, it’s like working with (for example), watercolors. There are things you can do with watercolors and things you can’t — in other words, there are limitations inherent in the medium.
If you want to paint beautifully with watercolors, you learn to accept the limitations of the medium — which are, in fact, at least partly responsible for its beauty — and you work within those limits. Maybe (as, for example, Andrew Wyeth did) you push those limits as far as you can. Maybe you don’t.
But there’s no point in pretending the limitations of the medium don’t exist. Instead, you use them to shape your paintings; within their constraints, you create beauty.
So I am not going to medical school and I don’t think we’re going to raise kids — at least not from the tadpole phase, and definitely not for a while. Maybe not at all.
I am, at this juncture, okay with both of those things, though it was tough getting there — especially med school. That took a lot of internal struggle.
The funny thing is that it’s getting easier. I didn’t expect it to, somehow, but I guess letting go, accepting limitations, and redefining abilities is a skill like any other. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
Anyway, it’s late, and I should try to get to bed. So that’s it for now. We did class today, and it was lovely, but I’ll cover it later.
Keep the sunny side up.