Author Archives: Jessica

A Narrative of 2018, Thus Far

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I realized today that I jumped back into posting – having skipped several months – and didn’t write about anything that has happened in those months, including the “mysterious thing” I was tiptoeing around in my last post before going radio silent for awhile.

In addition to applying for graduate school, I decided in January to sign up for my Level 1 Sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers, thereby making me more of an asset to my employers at my second job (and, incidentally, increasing my paycheck.)

This was important because, assuming I got into graduate school, I’d also decided I was going to quit the job I’ve held for the last ten years. A steady government job with benefits and a pension. I wasn’t enjoying the work anymore, and – though I believe very strongly in the organization itself – I didn’t care for the way my department was being managed.

Read: I had fundamental differences of opinion with my boss that were absolutely not going to be rectified to my satisfaction. And I didn’t like him much. He’d wronged me and he’d wronged someone else about whom I care deeply, and quite frankly, I wanted to tell him so.

So I did.

And it’s possibly one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I quit, I’m done, and I’m relieved – especially under the current climate – to not be working for the government.

Here’s a rundown of 2018:

  • My sweet, funny, fun-loving dad died suddenly and unexpectedly in January. He wasn’t in great health (for reasons I’ve already touched on in a previous blog post), but we had no reason to believe he wouldn’t be around for many more years.
  • I passed my Level 1 sommelier exam in Philadelphia in February.
  • I found out in March I was accepted into graduate school at St. John’s College.
  • I told my department in April that I was quitting the following month. Then I marched into my boss’s office and told him why I thought he wasn’t a good leader and some other things that I thought he needed to know. (This was one of the hardest things I’ve done, actually, but I practically danced out of his office when I was finished, because I was so proud of myself for doing it.)
  • I quit my job in May. I’ve literally worked – in various capacities, both in and out of uniform – for the U.S. Navy for all of my adult life. This was a huge effing deal.
  • I started working full-time at the wine store I’d been working part-time at and joined a blind tasting group in a nearby city to start working toward my Level 2 certification (after which I can call myself a “sommelier” as an official title.)
  • I’ve made a boatload of new friends who help keep me afloat when I’m sinking. This is a profoundly important thing to me in a way that’s hard for me to explain. Most of my life, I’ve considered myself too shy, too much of a loner to make friends easily. I’ve learned in the last few years since my separation and subsequent divorce that I can talk to anyone. Anyone. It’s a skill I didn’t know I possessed until very recently (and I’m 38 years old, ffs.)

That’s a lot. There have been other things. I’ve been through a bit of an emotional wringer this summer that I don’t feel comfortable publicizing in detail, but – suffice it to say, I thought for awhile there that I might have cancer, and I couldn’t immediately get resolution because I was between insurances. I blew it way out of proportion in my head because I’m always afraid I’m living in a tragedy instead of a comedy.

And I thought – through my own stupidity – I’d lost a vitally important friend.

In some ways mid-June to mid-July was one of the worst months of my life.

But … I don’t have cancer. The friend is still there.

Part of me is quite ready to be done with 2018, but so many good things have happened. I don’t want to wish time away. In just over two weeks, I start school. I haven’t been back to school in some time so I’m a bit nervous, but mostly I’m thrilled. I’m going to be reading Euclid and Lucretius and Descartes and talking and writing (which are pretty much my favorite things to do.)

For two years, I’ll be reading and writing and talking and figuring out what to do with the rest of my life. I have lots of things to improve. I wasted so much time in my previous, pre-divorce life just dreaming about doing things.

I’m doing things. Slowly but surely, I’m doing things. In the meantime, I need to start thinking of my life as something other than a tragedy. It might not turn out how I would have written it, but it’s not a tragedy.

Where do you want to start your day?

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Where do you want to start your day?

Such an innocuous question, part of a marketing campaign for IKEA on their webpage for bedroom designs. 

But for some reason it stuck in my head instantly … where do you want to start your day. They’re asking, of course, what kind of space you want to be in when you wake up (because HERE, buy the things that will make your dreams reality!)

But there’s more to waking up than the room.

What kind of mindset do you want to have when you wake? What do you want the elements of your life to be each morning? It’s a decent metaphor for what you want your life to look like, first thing in the morning – the ideal. Before everything else – the people, the responsibilities, the work, the commutes, the cooking and cleaning and CARING and everything that life entails – occurs, what do you want? 

That also seems like an innocuous question. What do you want? Easy to answer, right? You should know what you want.

It isn’t easy. 

Some people make it look easy, but I know intelligent, mindful, introspective people who, if you asked them right this moment what they want, would not be able to answer. I’m one of them. Why is it so hard?

A friend recently asked me about my upcoming grad school schedule. And when I described it briefly to him, he pointed out that it would still allow me to go to my blind wine tasting group that I attend to help me pass my exam to become a certified sommelier. I agreed, and his response was, “Should get you to where you want to go.”

Something about that statement filled me with … I don’t know … dread?

Not because I don’t want to become a certified sommelier – I most definitely do – but because the fact is, I don’t have a “where you want to go.” Everyone around me seems to have that. I don’t at the moment have a destination in mind. I’m kind of stabbing at shiny things in dark water hoping they turn out to be fish. Except that I don’t know if I want fish. 

I’m just DOING and hoping that somehow that leads to happiness. So sure, I have a passion for wine and, because of my part-time-now-turned-full-time job, the opportunity to pursue that interest professionally landed in my lap. 

I’m not going to pass that up. But I’m not trying to be a sommelier on the floor of a restaurant so … does that make me some kind of imposter?

I have the GI Bill which will pay for my graduate school, and there’s a college about 1.5 miles from my home that offers a program in the Classics – a good, old-fashioned course in reading and critical thinking and writing and all the things that I believe ultimately make one a better human being. 

Suddenly, the opportunity to pursue a course of study I’ve always wanted has dropped in my lap. But I don’t have much of a plan of what to do with it. Does THAT make me some kind of imposter?

I’m assuming that knowledge gained is never a waste. But … I have no real destination. In three years, I’ve upped and given up all the so-called stable things in my life – a marriage, a government job, a retirement fund. 

And while I don’t regret any of that, I rarely go through my day thinking “I am so happy.” 

I’m not. I don’t know how to be. I try every now and then to think about when I’m at my happiest so I can recreate it and sharpen my focus. But it’s slippery. It doesn’t like to be pinned down. It isn’t cooperative, my happiness. It comes and goes so quickly, I can’t grab it and hold on to it. It’s independent and doesn’t want me back. 

I worry about two things when I write like this. That 1) I sound like the quintessential self-absorbed, privileged white American and 2) Life is too short to be this unhappy about one’s self-actualization.

I’m not entirely self-serving. I want to love, and I want to have fulfilling work that uses my innate skills and helps people. I don’t want things. I don’t care about things. I care about meaning. I care about people. I care about experiences. And I just want to be genuinely happy, a majority of the time.

Those answers about “what I want” are so vague, though. I have no practical clue about how to bring any of it about. So much of my life is just kicking at gravel, hoping I come up with diamonds. 

Maybe that metaphor is more apropos than I care to admit. Who ever found diamonds kicking at gravel, Jessica?

Seeing Things More Clearly

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“The desire to be good is one of the loveliest things in the world, but in order to have a genuinely good life, we may sometimes need to be (by the standards of the compliant person) fruitfully and bravely difficult.”

I have to write an essay as part of my application to graduate school.

I’ve struggled a bit in writing this essay. Not because the essay itself is technically hard. It doesn’t require research, really. It’s all about myself and my thoughts. Nothing should be easier to write, but I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to make it especially outstanding because it’s symbolic of something. And when I try to describe its significance, even to myself, I struggle. It’s hard.

So many things have happened. So many things have changed. I’ve made the change.

This is important. I have not been passive. I was, for so long, but in the last three years I have effected more change on myself and my life than in the previous 35. I have been carefully carving away at it, trying to make it beautiful. It’s getting there.

I don’t mean to imply that there’s an end state – I think the carving away at life is a life-long process. But I am astonished at how different it looks now and how different it will look in just a few short months.

And this essay – in which I have to reflect on my past and explain what I’m working toward in my future and discuss the experiences and influences that have led me to this point in time – it needs to reflect the way my entire outlook on life has altered.

This essay is symbolic of change, taking control of one’s life, embracing risk, constantly seeking improvement. It’s symbolic of being – as E.E. Cummings wrote – yourself “in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else.” It’s symbolic of the hardest work, learning to ask for help, friendship and loyalty and love. It’s symbolic of the realization that life is too damn short to wake up every morning dreading the day.

I’m certainly overthinking it, because that’s what I do. But in the end, when I submit this piece, I want to feel about it the way I feel about all the other decisions I’ve made in the recent past.

As I was thinking about all of this for the essay, it made something else I was worrying at a little more clear.

I have what I think will be a difficult conversation coming up in my near future. People won’t like it. They won’t like me for it, and because I put a great store in being nice and responsible and liked, I’ll have to steel myself for it.

But it occurred to me that it won’t be nearly as difficult as telling my husband I wanted to get divorced and facing his considerable anger and disdain. It won’t be as hard as facing an uncertain, potentially difficult future alone, wondering if I was being brave or stupid. I’ve already done that, and I feel no regret.

I’m facing that question again, and I know the answer without hesitation. One difficult conversation isn’t going to stop me. The poor opinion of people for whom I have little respect is not going to stop me. “It’s not the critic who counts.” I’ve been brave, and I’ll continue to be brave. I’ll take the risks and accept the consequences. And I’ll work my ass off (starting with this damn essay that has me paralyzed). Nothing and no one will stop me.

 

Fear, envy, self talk, avoiding late night Chinese food …

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I’m reading a book entitled “Adult Children of Alcoholics” by Janet Woititz (which, as my therapist points out, is a rather unfortunate name for a woman.)

She recommended I read it – in particular the list of 13 characteristics of adult children of alcoholics to see if I could relate to any of them.

I’ve always thought “burst into tears” an overused and unrealistic phrase, but that’s what I did while I read that list. One second I was fine, the next I was crying. Answers that question.

I don’t want to overdramatize this. I have a great family, and there was a lot of love in our household growing up. I didn’t have a terrible childhood.

But the fact is that one of my parents is overly dependent on alcohol – a situation that grew worse only after I was already an adult – and the other is codependent (a natural thing to become when you’re the spouse of an alcoholic).

I can look objectively back on my childhood and see how our family dysfunction has affected my patterns of behavior as an adult. Those patterns affect everything in my life – my personal relationships, my sense of identity, my work, my mood, my outlook on life, my ability to get out of bed in the morning, my decision making. Those effects are often negative, self-degrading, even paralyzing.

Something happened recently that drove this point home for me, an incident that made me feel very much like the quiet, solitary, terrified 16-year-old who wanted desperately to be liked by a guy but found herself always passed over for the tall, skinny, blond with the cheerleading outfit and the reputation for being an amazing lay (as if anyone anywhere is ever an amazing lay when they’re 16. Bitch, please.)

I could feel the physical reaction coming on – the shrinking in on myself, the flushed face, the desire to run and hide, the clamming up. And I sat there, poised on the edge of flight like a rabbit in a spotlight, and … told myself to stop.

“Just stop,” I said (in my head). “You’re not 16. You’re a 37-year-old woman with an amazing brain, a wicked sense of humor and a good heart. You’re fit, beautiful and possess a confident sense of your own sexuality. You’re physically and emotionally strong. You work hard and treat people with care. You’re worthy. Just stop.”

And I did. I pushed through my desire to flee and said what I wanted to say instead of clamming up and then went on with my life. A life that is unfortunately never entirely absent of that critical, nagging, grating voice telling me that I’m not pretty enough or interesting enough, that I’m too intense, too serious, too much of a mess for anyone to ever love me.

Over the last few days, that feeling has persistently tried to return, and I continue to push through it, forcing myself to think clearly about who I am – who I really am here and now, not the terrified mouse I used to be.

I’m 37 years old and have quite a lot of people who love me, and I still have to actively remind myself of my worth. That’s part of what being the child of an alcoholic is. There are people in the world who don’t have to do continually do that. I want to be one of them.

British writer Caitlin Moran gave an interview recently in which she reads an exerpt of a book she wrote. I haven’t read the book, but I will after seeing this interview. She’s addressing girls with eating disorders specifically, but the advice she gives is relevant for any mental health struggle. Here are a few of things she said that resonated with me:

“Panic and anxiety will lie to you. They are gonzo-maligned commentators on the events in your life. Their counsel is wrong. Panic and anxiety are mad drugged fools. You must not listen to their grinding-toothed sweaty bullshit.”

“You will never in your life ever have to deal with anything for more than the next minute … the minutes always come one at a time, inside hours that come one at a time, inside days that come one at a time … do the calm, right thing that needs to be done in that minute, the work or the breathing or the smile. You can do that for one minute. And if you can do one minute, you can do the next.”

“The most important thing is to know that you were not born like this. You were not born scared and self-loathing and overwhelmed. Things have been done, which means things can be undone. And that’s hard work. But you are not scared of hard work.”

I’m not scared of hard work. I thrive on hard work.

I’ll be thinking and writing and possibly talking about this for awhile, but the point for now is that I have a lot of work to do, and I’m doing it. Because I want to change and have healthy relationships with friends and lovers and family where the tiniest details won’t send me (even temporarily) heart first into a downward spiral of self-loathing, fear-induced envy of strangers, and late-night binges on Chinese food (ugh, that was disgusting. Don’t do that.)

Today

My thoughts on 10/2/17:

  1. Life is short, uncertain, and often terrifying.
  2. Our leadership is shit. And we’re not even through a whole year of the four we have to endure.

But …

  1. Nothing heals me like music and the feel of a particular person’s skin on mine.
  2. I was told by a colleague that I’m the kind of person who gets things done.

These are the little things that keep me going every day. It’s easy for me to be positive and grateful in the face of tragedy, because I didn’t lose anyone today. And it should be easy. I drank bourbon and made love and did my work well and cuddled a couple of warm dogs. Really, what more can anyone ask of their day? No one was shooting at me or anyone I love.

I have been so down for so long, and I’m fucking done. It’s selfish. All of my problems are of my own making. They’re simple to solve. They’re nothing. They are not worth making myself or anyone else miserable.

I am done. This changes now. Today.

Practicing Emotional Intelligence

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How would I turn my desire to respect another person’s independence into a “practice”?

This probably sounds like a weird question, but I was reading an online article entitled The Myth of the ‘Aha’ Moment in which the author talks about how having the original epiphany isn’t enough to exact change in your behavior. You have to develop a regular practice of responding in a new way to make change stick.

It makes sense. We are creatures of habit. We have to make a habit of routine exercise before a culture of fitness becomes an ingrained part of our lives. It makes sense that the same thing applies to our emotions and the way we behave, toward ourselves and others.

I had an “Aha!” moment this morning when I read this paragraph by Erich Fromm:

“Productive love always implies a syndrome of attitudes; that of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. If I love, I care – that is, I am actively concerned with the other person’s growth and happiness; I am not a spectator. I am responsible, that is, I respond to his needs, to those he can express and more so to those he cannot or does not express. I respect him, that is (according to the original meaning of re-spicere) I look at him as he is, objectively and not distorted by my wishes and fears. I know him, I have penetrated through his surface to the core of his being and related myself to him from my core, from the center, as against the periphery, of my being.”

I am terribly guilty of seeing people I love through the distorted lens of my own wishes and fears. I don’t think this is at all unusual human behavior, but it’s something I want to change.

So. If because of my own insecurities I react badly to a loved one’s need for independence, and I’ve determined that I don’t WANT to behave that way – how do I translate that into a practice? I have said many times that I want to love differently, less selfishly. But just thinking about it will obviously not make it happen.

If I had taken some time Saturday night to just think, would I have behaved differently? Instead of going out and stewing my resentment and hurt in a couple of martinis and some bourbon (not a good recipe for anything sensible or kind), what if I’d turned that moment into a self-assessment ritual? Something tangible. I’ve always benefited from writing out my thoughts. If they stay in my head, they just swirl around and go nowhere.

So, for instance, take out a piece of paper, turn down the lights and light a candle. Put on some soothing music without distracting lyrics. Get the dogs to stop panting and the cat to stop howling then give up and shut them up in another room. And seriously think about and answer some or all of the following questions:

Why am I reacting this way? What am I afraid of? Why does another person’s behavior affect me so greatly? What is the real source of my resentment? (Because ultimately it is probably something other than what is happening right this second.)

What do I know of the other person? I’m assuming in this moment that I know their thoughts, but of course I don’t. What do I know? Why would I assume that their motives in this moment have anything to do with me? What does that say about me?

And – the question I think I should ask myself any time I’m feeling a negative emotion of any kind – for what am I grateful? It’s impossible to feel gratitude when you’re feeling strong negative emotions. But if you really start thinking about all the very good things in your life, I think it’s also impossible to stay angry or sad for very long. You can’t feel gratitude and anger/sadness/fear simultaneously.

And there’s always something for which to be grateful.

I think that’s a start anyway. I seriously want to change the way I think and behave. I don’t know exactly how, so I’ll just have to experiment and find what works best.

My upbringing taught me to largely avoid emotions, as did my marriage. I don’t think many of us are taught emotional intelligence. We have to figure it out on our own.

Who *is* this woman?

I saw a quote today from someone named Azra T. – who I think, from my brief Internet searches, is a student and a poet in the UK. I was going to post it on Twitter, but then I found more quotes (maybe they’re full poems; it’s hard to tell), and now I’m a little overwhelmed because they’re tear-inducingly beautiful.

I’ll show you:

“I will only let you touch me if your hands are so full of intention that every brush of your palms feels like you’re writing a novel on my skin.”

And this one, which might be my favorite:

“I’ve stopped being sorry for all my soft. I won’t apologise because I miss you, or because I said it, or because I text you first, or again. I think everyone spends too much time trying to close themselves off. I don’t want to be cool or indifferent, I want to be honest. If I love you at 5AM, I’d damn well rather that you know I felt it. If I love you two hours later, I’ll tell you then too. Listen, I won’t wait double the time it takes for you to text me back because I don’t want to. I don’t care enough to be patient with you. I’m happy, you made me feel that way, don’t you want to know? So that’s how it’s going to be. I’m going to leave myself as open as a church door. And I’m going to wake you up before the crack of dawn to tell you that I’m fucking joyful, no pretending, not from me, not ever. Would you like some coffee, would you please kiss me? Here, these are my hands, this is my mouth, it is all yours.”

And then this one:

“I’m always soft for you, that’s the problem. You could come knocking on my door five years from now and I would open my arms wider and say ‘come here, it’s been too long, it felt like home with you.’”

Aren’t they beautiful? This is how people should love – intensely, but without expectation. Respectful of each other’s autonomy, but without fear.

And then there’s this one, which I also love:

“I will teach my daughter not to wear her skin like a drunken apology. I will tell her ‘make a home out of your body, live in yourself, do not let people turn you into a regret, do not justify yourself. If you are a disaster it is not forever, if you are a disaster you are the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen. Do not deconstruct from the inside out, you belong here, you belong here, not because you are lovely, but because you are more than that.'”