healing

love letters

Dear Ex-Husband,  

When there’s a chill in the air, the way it felt in the end, in our perfect, corner-lot home, I wear your flannel shirt. You joked that I shrunk your laundry on purpose because I wanted to make what was yours my own. I was never good at housewife things.

When you asked me to marry you I thought, this is the beginning.

I wanted to dance to Van Morrison just because it was a Tuesday, because the snow floating onto the deck chairs looked so beautiful and the fire felt so nice. I’d hold my glass of wine in one hand, turn up the volume with the other and sway in front of the speakers. The dog’s eyebrows shifted back and forth as he watched from the couch; me watching you stand across the room, letting me dance alone, the artwork rattling against the walls. It annoyed you that I craved to simply be in the moment, untethered to expectations, peacefully content and enough for ourselves–enough for each other–safe from the pressure and the pain and the cruelty outside the cracked glass panel of our front door.

I wanted to sell all of our things and go somewhere new. I wanted to experience the world with you by my side. Let’s get in the car and see where we end up; throw our phones in the glove box and sleep under the stars.

 When you told me to divorce you I thought, this is the end.

The American Psychological Association says 50% of Western marriages end in divorce. It was September when our love story, like half of our lovelorn peers, turned into a antiseptic, bold-faced statistic on a crystal white page. We stood awkwardly–heartbroken and tear-stained–unsure if it was acceptable to still hold onto each other while the walls we built crumbled around us. I never truly felt the presence of your heart until the day I decided to eradicate mine.

I don’t know why I am writing to you now. Maybe because the leaves are changing again. Because I feel the tip of my nose go numb when I stand on my front porch and stare at the moon. You never wanted to stop and stare at anything. I know you fell in love again, but did you finally find a way to fall in love with the sky?  

Maybe if I put my heart on the page one more time, your flannel shirt wrapped around my waist, tears of rage creeping behind burning eyes, I won’t feel you creep into my mind; the way you’d sneak behind me at the cutting board making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. If I tell you how you broke me; how when I squint tight I can still faintly see your cold stare past my shoulders, while I begged you to look me in the eye. As if a year later, a wine-sodden Dear John letter could wash it all away.

 

Dear You,

 I regret to inform you that we are through.

I look fondly back on our nine years together, and with sorrow on our one year apart. I am writing to say, formally, we no longer have any business occupying the spaces of one another’s hearts.

Please remove my image from your memory promptly, and allow me to do the same.

I wish you the best.

 

Sincerely,  

Me

  

Remember how we sat around the table with my dad and sister, telling them we’d decided to go our separate ways. We smiled over stiff cocktails, cracking jokes like nothing would ever change. We said we’d remain friends; we’d divvy our things amicably, share the same lawyer, exist with separate lives peacefully, lovingly committed to our respect for the other and what we once had. Funny what difference a year can make.

I started smoking again. Last time I quit because of you, Ex-Husband; flicking my last butt onto the asphalt, watching it dance in the road like our small-town firework shows; your coat over my back with your body just behind.

Remember when we leaned against the falling-over deck rail and swapped stories, chuckling over our shared fondness for Marlboro Smooths. Encompassed by smoke and beer breath we tumbled ass over teakettle into each other’s broken hearts. We had a special way of helping each other toward the things that felt like magic while they filled our insides with tar.

I bleach my hair blonde now; like when I was tow-headed and bright eyed; before I knew the power of love outside the strong arms of my dad. We’d set our snacks aside to dance on the living room rug with the Disney princesses singing behind us. I’d twirl until my skirt floated around my waist and I felt my belly tickle my throat. You always said you didn’t like blondes.

I write all the time now; as if my heart rupturing obliterated the overgrown weeds I’d so long let flourish, leaving behind a marked trail to my true, clear voice. I’ve spent a year peeling  back my mask, finally feeling the full beauty and sting of the sun and the wind and the rain. What a year it’s been, huh.

Maybe I’m writing to you to say thank you.

Thank you for not being like the one before you.

Thank you for keeping me safe.

For loving me the best way you knew how.  

Thank you for holding me upright on my twenty-first birthday.

For taking the trash out when it heaped over the can.

For building the fire as I sat cocooned on the couch, the dog nestled between my thighs.

Thank you for not letting my wine glass get empty.

For heaping seconds on my plate and telling me I was beautiful as I felt my pants squeeze tight.

Thank you for giving up on me.

For deeming me too much, too little, too everything.

For finding the love I couldn’t give in your simple, perfect-on-paper, so beautiful belle.

 Love will never be enough, you told me; your brow furrowed and your heart tucked deep in your saferoom, protected from the world’s hazards, too obstructed to love.

But you were wrong.

I laugh from my belly now, Ex-Husband. And I cry from my soul.

I dance to Van Morrison in my underwear and stand, mouth agape, awestruck, in love with the night sky. Sometimes my wine glass gets empty, and I feel my heart twinge when I swaddle myself in your flannel; because some things are just too good to say goodbye.

 But I kiss like I mean it and write until my eyes cross. I tuck my phone in the glovebox and book last-minute flights just because. When you decided it was the end, it was actually the beginning–the place where I rose from our ashes, Ex Husband; where love, for myself, was enough.

 Thanks for the lessons. Thanks for the love.

 

Fondly & No Longer,

Yours

 

rites of passage: the dresser

Once a week I haul my dirty clothes to the laundromat a few blocks down the road in a routine I’ve unexpectedly grown to appreciate. I wheel my things from one machine to the next, carefully packing them back into their basket, only to be stuffed away carelessly when I return home.

When I fold my laundry my mind races–head down, foot-tapping, headphones drowning out the buzz of a dozen dryers. My hands stay busy and my brain has all the room to roam. I often wonder if the other patrons around me are navigating the intimate corners of their minds as well. It looks like we’re awkwardly folding our underwear in a shared space, but we’re in the thick of it together–working to solve life’s mysteries one roll of quarters at a time.

We dig deep into our stories, minds and hearts ripping wide open, with each turn and fold.  

Months before I slid up and down the hallway–my mismatched socks, his flannel shirt, plastic basket on my side. I tucked our belongings away; his nestled next to mine­. Our wedding photos shook and the silk poppies of my bouquet quivered as the oak drawers of our old chest of clothes slammed shut. Dresser drawers burst with stacks of weathered band t-shirts, while my heart burst for him.

We decided to get divorced on a work-night. I collapsed on the kitchen table and he turned away, wrangling his weeps behind tired eyes. I woke up to the sound of the dresser’s handles thumping as his calloused, oil-stained hands let it go. For seven years I’d heard the squeak and thud of those drawers before his pick-up rumbled down the driveway. I’d pretend to sleep while he kissed my forehead and tucked in my feet.

 I love you, Bear, he’d say.

I love you, I’d whisper as I rolled to steal his pillow and smiled.

We slept as a pair–two bodies together, two hearts ripped apart–for the last time that night. Before the sun came up, the metal handles chirped their familiar tune; he left for work and I emptied my drawers.

My new apartment felt hollow–a two-bedroom, one-bath I begrudgingly worked to furnish day-by-day. The movers threw my new mattress and box springs across the bedframe, propped lonely between four stark-white walls. I stretched my sheets over the corners, unwrapped my new blankets and leaned my pillows at the headboard one-by-one.

Two for me.

Two more for no one.

I consciously built a disposable world around me. I lived quietly, surrounded by simple things I could peacefully turn the lights down on and never look back. I kept my clothes stacked in bins in the closet and a mirror leaned against the wall. I’d sweep the dust-bunnies away and sit cross-legged on the hardwood, hair-brushes and makeup cluttered at my sides.

For an entire year I needed a dresser, and for an entire year, something inside me resisted. Somewhere beneath my grief, I held a simple bank of drawers in a wildly symbolic, unfavorable light. I’d walk through furniture stores and flea markets–inspecting, testing, measuring–only to find myself once again perched at the end of the bed, wide-eyes glued to the blank wall where the damned dresser belonged.

I’d dig through my mind for reasoning. It’s too big, too dark, too lavish, too broken, I’d tell myself, knowing my resistance sat much deeper than the polished wood surface I leaned my weight on.

I’d learned divorce feels like a war. Memories from the beautiful and images of ugly swirl around you as you hold your head between your knees and beg the Universe to make it end.  

I love you. I hate you.

I loved you. I’ll never stop hating you. 

You cling desperately to whatever feels steady, filled by an unshakeable fear that if you dare to let go, you'll surely float into space. You see a never-ending stream of destruction and brawl with the certainty that it’ll never change. You trudge through the wind and the rain, day after day, fighting for your new life one battle at a time.

Get out of bed.

Wash your hair.

Change your name.

Sell the rings.

Forget how he smiled at you.

Remember your pain.

You sit silently among the carnage, fighting to convince yourself you’re not going to die–not tonight. You make enemies with the furniture, desperate to release your tormented rage.

I sat with my pain and road the waves of heartache–for him, for me, for the tiny, flickering flame in the distance I prayed meant I’d feel love again. I had good days and dark days, manic days and sad days, and it was still the dresser that brought me to my knees. I was suffocated by an inexplicable weakness to tuck my new life into drawers.

Months passed, and I loaded my new-to-me dresser in the back of the truck with a friend, still unconvinced it had a place in my piecemeal home. We lugged it up the stairs and pushed it into the empty wall. I loaded my things into the drawers watching my reflection move methodically in the matching mirror. My wool socks and sweatpants mocked me, cradled in their new home.  

This is where we belong now.

It was weighty– a substantial mass of energy standing sturdy like a boldface period at the end of my tragic, romantic tale. I looked at it across from my bed, the space beside me empty, with jaded eyes. My things sat comfortably unobstructed by another. T-shirts and sweaters once harassed by diesel-soaked Levi’s lay blissfully in their lavender-scented abode.

I twisted my lip under my teeth and imagined smashing the drawers, setting the dresser ablaze in a fit of heart-broken madness. I’d watch my things light like kindling and blow all the feelings away. The neighbors would hold back their children, fearfully observing my silhouette fan the raging flames. I held my fingers in my ears as my ivory-painted drawers looked straight through me–past my pain and my pretending–and breathed softly.

It’s time to stop running now, they said.

Their brass handles clinked quietly against the drawer face as I opened them to tuck my clean clothes inside. My sweatshirt pocket sagged with quarters for next week’s laundry, and my heart did the same. For a year I’d been at odds with my world, wearing the bloodshed from my battles, hoping quietly, with hidden desperation, that I’d at last found the end.

I watched the petite, carved legs rest delicately on my bedroom floor, confidently supporting the weight of my baggage. Before, in cluttered suitcases and boxes, I’d declared myself a gypsy–unrestrained and unscathed. My clothes and I could be lost–together–without a home. Displaced and braced for our next stirring–a vagabond soul and her disheveled basket of things.

Now, everything had changed. Roots crept beneath my dresser, deep through the hardwood into the foundation, past my resistances–through my armor for fighting the darkness felt in an empty home.

I lay still in my bed, feeling the sun from the window and hearing the distant trucks humming by. My tired eyes fluttered open as I peeked over my blankets toward my bank of drawers. I reached for the other pillow–cool from a night in the moonlight–and tried to eke out a smile.

This is where we belong now.

The handles sat silently; drawers undisturbed. They burst with tired garments, worn and ill-fitting on my post-divorce frame. Teeming with fear, and also with freedom, I reached toward the ­­­­­­­­drawer pulls and started my new day.

the empowered woman

My historic railroad home sat nestled between a nearly-abandoned lot of waist-high weeds, storage crates and an automotive shop. The porch sat almost below the crumbling viaduct, connecting downtown to the west side of town. When the bridge came down, it took only a few short days. One morning I walked below it, past the broken Budweisers, toward my office and the next I found myself standing wide-eyed against the chain-link, staring blankly at the piles of rebar towering above me like curled ribbons.

Somewhere in the stacks of concrete was a tagged traffic sign I’d established an intimate routine with. Its words had greeted me with a comfortable cynicism each day since I hauled my belongings into my new, post-divorce nest; wiping clear my story of what once was in pursuit of everything new. I’d nod as I shuffled my feet home from days of too much work, too little food, just enough vodka to dull the pain. Do Not Enter Love, the sign read. It’s dangerous there, babe, it reminded me.

The town celebrated the shiny, new bridge–four sturdy lanes of traffic winding through newly landscaped terrain, rich with opportunity for development. Walkers and cyclists buzzed back and forth under the lights, gawking at the new perspective of the distant mountains. I sat on my porch, struck by the clear view of what was once obstructed, clutching my heart for that sign.

Love and I had a complex history. I’d always known it was there, bubbling below my chest, rich with gifts left ungiven, but I also knew how dark and cruel and ugly it could be as it threw me against the drywall, declaring my worth between my legs, manipulating, mistreating, and calling me by name as it stabbed me in the belly. For a lifetime, my performance in love for others was clumsy; in love from others; cataclysmic; in love for myself, laughable.

I’d lived as a self-proclaimed whipping post–born undeserving of grace, ease, or abundance. I was thrashed by the blows of others, but above all, a victim of my own hand. Love, inward and outward, was a ploy for power, best dimmed and withheld.

My career was my security–the only place that felt safe. I’d failed as a wife, but I could soar as a professional. I attached every ounce of my worth to my job roles and strategically built the identity I believed was the antidote to my broken heart. Each time the magnet of my nametag snapped onto my jacket, the curtains were drawn. I smiled and laughed, stroking the egos of my peers. I prepared for meetings with purpose and precision–in my mind and in my skirt length. I sat across tables from the troops of middle-aged men–arrogant in their starched slacks–and I performed. They were impressed by my mind, but that’s not why they kept my seat at the table. I sat at the table anyway.

The train whooshed below us and I sought comfort between his arms. Between them I felt safe– blocked from the sting of reality. I felt a heart pulse against mine and let it beat for the part of me that lost its own rhythm. At the time I thought this was the solution. He gave me the warmth I didn’t have. He held me up so the world couldn’t see my struggle to stand. But I was a temporary fix for his own broken heart–a vodka-soaked bandage to take the edge off the dark, winter months. His feelings for me were as real as mine for him, but I knew I wasn’t enough to extinguish the inevitable ahead. I clung to him anyway.

I chased beautiful things with desperation in my eyes. Our love language was material, and each curated corner of my world was a little girl’s plea to gather love. These flowers on my desk have always meant work is great. These matching curtains have always meant I’m doing fine on my own. These leather boots have always meant I’m happy now, mom. She was as broken as I was and knew it wouldn’t ever be different. I cried for her love anyway.

Whole chapters of my life were manufactured in the shadows of self-loathing. For 28 years I’d tapped my hand on my cheek, provoking the world to swing at me the way I deserved. And then, as if the clock struck twelve, the sparkly, smiley, and small existence I’d pretended to carry to keep my keepers happy, shattered. For the first time, in the heaps of my own catastrophe, exhausted from the care-taking and the pretending, a tiny voice in me whispered, How can I love myself now? My body, exhausted from holding it all inside, collapsed into the pain and the release. I stood stripped of everything I’d built around myself–naked, afraid, and ready.

I’d spent a year with my reflection methodically picking at the blemishes in my life until they grew into craters, void of anything familiar, exposing the real and the raw beneath the tight mask I’d so proudly worn for decades. My world, once comfortable, safe, stable, wasn’t enough anymore. My marriage, mortgage, and security were collateral damage. I let the houseplants die and the neighbors talk as I ripped apart my desirable existence with a teary-eyed grin. Then the work began.

I dreamed of the beautiful, adventurous, and meaningful. I wanted love that made my breath steady, experience that made my heart zing, work that changed the world–a world that felt safe, by my terms. I wanted to feel empowered.

I looked to society’s curation of the empowered female. Instagram tells us we are bold, in our words, in our style. Celebrities tell us we speak up, confidently, unapologetic. We speak our truth, declare our worth, support our sisters, take up space. We gather for conferences, luncheons, and summits. We eagerly read and write with fervor. We wear our stories on our chest and preach the sermon of strength. We rush city halls, demand equality, place our perpetrators in the cuffs they deserve. We love ourselves with an unshakeable love–steadfast and strong.

The empowered woman is confident.
The empowered woman is able.
The empowered woman stands at the top of the mountain, arms open to the sky, grateful for the life she’s built herself–wind in her hair, smile on her face.

I built my new life piece by piece, grasping tightly to the image of the woman I could be. Letting go of expectations allowed me to create a simple sanctuary in my oddball, downtown rental. My belongings became tools for functioning, not symbols of my happiness. I lost myself in racks of vintage, filling my closet with pieces from decades past, imaging the story of the woman before me–a process I’d adored since childhood but abandoned years ago. I ate my meals in bars and cafes, laughing loudly when I wanted, somberly ruminating when I needed. My scarlet letter marked me a failed housewife and I pinned it to my secondhand sweater without shame.

I said yes to everything. Last-minute road trips, middle-of-the-day hikes, Christmas in the desert, drinks with friends, conversations with strangers. I spoke the truth without hesitation. When I felt love, I spoke it. When I felt pain, I spoke it. When I felt anger, I spoke it.

Women told me they thought I was strong. You’re so brave, they’d say with stars in their eyes, as if I was the image of their modern-day heroine. I questioned if this is what brave feels like. I don’t feel brave, I’d tell them, but maybe I am.

I parroted society’s plan for the daring, born-again woman with precision, but my smile was weak, and my heart was hollow. I’d cracked the door open to a new world, and it wasn’t until things fell even further into the unexpected that I flung it off the hinges.

I bobbed through the San Juan Islands listening to the raindrops bounce off my hood. The locals stayed inside the ferry, hands wrapped around their coffee, while I stared a thousand-mile stare. The wind and rain whipped my hair across my face and gave me permission to be broken. I didn’t have to pretend to be okay here.

The opportunity arose for me to submerge myself in a treatment program–a soul-filling sanctuary of love and beauty and peace. I ate three meals a day for the first time in years. My pants squeezed into my waist and I didn’t care. My smile stretched further across my cheeks each day as the weight on my shoulders crumbled down my back, freeing me from the chains I’d cast around myself. I painted rainbows on my toenails and walked barefoot in the grass.

Here, on a funny little farm, miles away from my reality, I crossed swords with myself. I combed through the unwritten rules I’d lived by, called my inner-critics by name and redefined what it meant to be me.

I screamed to my abusers, You broke me.
I cried to my deserters, You betrayed me.
I raged to the Universe, You destroyed me.

Pushing my hand into my chest, rooting my toes into the ground, I loved myself with the love I deserved but never felt. I held my hand as I forgave myself for being cruel and forgave the world for making me that way. My sobs washed away my armor, my cynicism swept away in the wind. It was different now.

I returned to my real world, confident in my worth and eager for change, but my newfound empowerment felt lonely. It didn’t look like before. It didn’t look like the others. My eyes were open wide to every facet, and it seemed as if everything was on the line to be tossed upside-down. My grief grew, shadowing my hot, summer days, and I felt a steady pressure of rage pulse behind my eyes. I’d plunged into the muck of my own healing, yet my world looked vastly different from society’s image of the healed.

I roamed through crowded streets and sat in buzzing bars, on the surface the same being I was before. Below it, I was unfamiliar–my emotional scaffolding, strengthened but diverging.

Strangers grabbed my shoulders, winking as they slid into the stool beside me, stopping me as I worked, pushing their bodies into mine.

I didn’t feel ugly or dumb or small anymore. My confidence brought me peace in my physicality– something I’d never felt before–and that same confidence invited my harassment. Accepting myself lifted a weight off my chest that allowed me to hold my head proud and my gaze steady. I was finally released from my own biting provocations and immediately whiplashed into the faces of tormenting strangers. Confidence was a gift I’d given myself that, unbeknown to me, came with a dark side.

I sat across the familiar conference tables and thought about the suits in front of me and their six- figure salaries. They swapped golf stories and puffed their chests like brutish creatures behind the zoo glass. I’d avoided the simple math to discern my hourly rate, because I knew what it’d show me. Between stories they scribbled notes as I spoke. In ninety minutes I volunteered my ideas to cushion their status–their benefits, their legacy–and I ninety minutes I didn’t make enough to cover the lukewarm coffee that sat between us. My value was at the top of my mind now, and my awareness magnified the facts I’d shrugged off before.

My world and the people in it stung my skin. Like a new baby, I was tender to it all. I’d ripped the layers off one-by-one, tossing the hardened protection I’d built aside and exposing my everything to the elements. The hurt I felt from my relationships, my failures, my decades of suppressed desires for something different was amplified–no longer deflected by my masks or met with a welcoming embrace by my self-imposed identity as the Universe’s sacrificial lamb. I had clarity now, and it was clear that it was time for change.

Gone were the days of indulging the narrative that I am un-loveable, undeserving, unfit for the big, bold, and beautiful. I knew I deserved different now, and it was me who had to roll up my sleeves. I trudged below society’s portrait of empowerment–the peaceful woman on her mountain. She smiled for the scenery around her and I set mine on fire.

My eyes were open to my worthiness and I felt the discomfort of the blows I’d once welcomed with open arms. The actions I previously coveted now brought me to my knees. I found myself trapped in the canyon between the past-life I’d built to beat me and the new-life I’d found the courage to rebuild. I’d blown the cover off of culture’s image of the strong and I knew with unwavering certainty that the empowered woman does not actually stand blissfully with the sun on her chest.

I was the empowered woman now, and the pain was consuming.

The world roared clearly to me now.

Empowerment is not peace.
Empowerment is not joy.
Empowerment is not victorious arms thrust toward the sky, marking the end of the climb.

Empowerment is, in the face of your wrenching grief, feeling your heart thrash below your skin, purposefully shattering your world into a million tiny pieces so you can learn how to put it back together again. It is ignoring the magnetic pull to abandon yourself in your greatest time of need and sitting quietly with your pain. It is turning your face toward the heat and pushing through the flames, giving yourself permission to feel it all

The empowered woman goes to war with her world every day.
The empowered woman is scarred.
The empowered woman is tired.
The empowered woman does not pose proudly, pleased on the peaks above us.

The empowered woman walks through a valley–winding and unpredictable. Through the sun and the shadows, she keeps moving through her grief, away from the familiar and toward what she deserves. Her eyes look ahead–not behind, not around. Her mind is afraid, her body is steady, her hand is on her heart. The empowered woman sits with herself, loving fiercely through it all.

The empowered woman lets love in. The empowered woman lets love out.

The jackhammers buzzed through my bones as I walked past the bridge’s rubble on my way back home. Do Not Enter Love, my sign cried quietly from a distance, crumpled and discarded in a bed of now-obsolete trash. It’s dangerous there, babe.

The sun, once blocked by thick barriers of concrete, beat on my shoulders as I shuffled past. I walked toward an entirely new reality–eyes open, soul unbarred. I felt tired and lonely and afraid, but I smiled, hand on my heart, and I entered anyway.