Guest Post: The Sad Man

By Spencer Harber

No one knows what it’s like.
To be the bad man.
To be the sad man.
Behind blue eyes.
-The Who

It finally clicks, I’ve had it. No more excuses, it’s time to go. Michelle hurriedly packs the kid’s bags in agreement. We’ve visited for nearly a week. A week punctuated with melancholy, suppressed memories, familial pain and unhealthy interaction.  I load our things in the car, without a backward glance, and just like that–the rich green alfalfa field and golden log house, I called home for 25 years disappears behind me.


I propel our rental car in a daze. Fleeing, speedily, I motor our family down the dirt road that cuts its way through the sagebrush covered foothills. Putting distance between us and this place is my only concern. Michelle clenches my hand, with courageous support, as the car fishtails along the symmetrical washboards of the road, adding a dramatic sense of urgency to our escape.

The vibrations of this old road, which I’ve traveled for years, keeps the noise in my head silent.  As we hit the pavement of the highway and cross the threshold to civilization, the car stops shaking. We are all, however, still shaking. The noise from the tires transforms from a rolling crunch to a calming hum, allowing my pesky inner voice to ask, “are you sure about this?” Yes. I’m sure. I have all the loving support I need; I’m done with this shit.

Our family of four travels southbound on Highway 93 on our way to Boise where the airport awaits to take us far away from here. Why had we come? A sense of obligation? A child’s hope that things would somehow be different? That my family would somehow be functional? Perhaps it was my naïve desire for acceptance. Some misguided need for them to see me on my own terms, with my own family, and somehow feel a sense of pride? I now feel foolish for all these thoughts.

The voice in my head asks, “should I say goodbye to Mom?” I careen my neck to see the parking lot of the Fish & Game. Mom’s place of employment of 30-plus years, to find that her car is gone. Still holding my hand, in loving support, my wife asks, “Is she there?” I shake my head, as my eyes pull focus back onto the highway towards town, the inner voice tries to sooth my decision by telling me “she’s probably at the parade, you’ll find her.”

Our girls have been sitting quietly in the backseat attuned to what Daddy and Mommy are trying to do. No matter what, they have proved time and time again that they are the staunchest survivors of life’s difficulties.

We arrive in Salmon, a small town located in central Idaho, surrounded by rugged mountain landscapes and inhabited by staunchly self-reliant, rugged people.

It’s July the 4th 2012 and the old-fashioned town parade highlights everything good about small communities. It’s quaint and sweet—the tractors, and high school kids on floats. A couple hundred people are in attendance, unconsciously waving flags while small children run into the street collecting rations of thrown smarties and saltwater taffy.


“We don’t have to stop you know, Boise is waiting with open arms. Just send them a text, you are justif…” Just then, I spot my uncle’s fireworks booth which sits outside of his cellphone business, (prime real estate) off the main street, next to Salmon’s most popular and only modern attraction: Burger King. I pull the rental car in and park. I tell Michelle that we will just be a minute, I want to say goodbye to my favorite Uncle.

My aunt is facilitating the sale of fireworks as she sees our family arrive and greets us with a smiling hello. My uncle comes over and shakes my hand just like he always has, dating back to my earliest memory of him, when I was probably six. We talk about our plans as a family and I tell him that we are heading back to Japan to get our house packed for our next move to Germany, where Michelle’s career as an international English teacher awaits. As usual, in the cool and collective style of “UR” he expresses his support with such affirmations that I temporarily forget about my impeding worry, and the acid in my stomach is neutralized through the normalcy and supportive response of this beloved uncle.

My aunt is taking pictures with the girls as they excitedly throw poppers against the pavement, shrieking in joy at each tiny combustion. Michelle, ever vigilant to the situation at hand, looks at me and says, “You should go look for your Mom, I’ll wait here with the girls.” I agree and tell her I’ll be back in 10 minutes, so we can go.

My Mom was, and still is, a beauty. I’ve always loved her. We supported each other through numerous occasions where, he, unloaded his raucous fits of rage upon us. Once bright and vibrant as a newly bloomed sunflower, the years of mental and physical abuse suffered, in order to keep the status quo, wilted her flower until it matched in resigned subjugation the rotting blackness of her husband’s soul.

Both Mom and I stayed with him through multiple altercations including name calling, hair pulling, hitting, and his favorite for me and my “mouth” — strangulation.

The names I was called varied. He had a plethora of hurtful terms aimed at “putting me in my place.” I was commonly bellowed for as, “Tubby”, “Chubs”, “Mouth”, and “Dumbass.” These “terms of endearment” confirmed my existence in the family.

What hurt much more than the belittling name calling was the physical hatred expressed in the regular choking, which cut off the air to my brain, and left me gasping, dizzy and sometimes unconscious. My amygdala jumps in caution as I involuntarily recall a traumatic memory of choking inflicted on my nine year old self. I was savagely strangled for the audacious crime of peeking in a box of crayons before Christmas.

The back of my head had been shaped by being slammed up against several backdrops, including but not limited to: walls, cars, and horse trailers while he suffocated me with those cold, gnarled, vice like hands. I was forced to look into those eyes even as the air from my windpipe was cut. What I saw in his eyes, for me, his child, was pure and unadulterated hatred.  I never knew where this hate came from, and my child-self assumed that I was worthless and not entitled to his goodwill. Often before losing consciousness, I faintly heard the muttered threats and wishes for my demise that punctuated my childhood. Choking seemed to be his favorite form of interaction with me.

There was always the constant threat of being mercilessly whipped, with the old thick leather belt, which he kept hanging in the closet for the express purpose of discipline. Hearing him yell the words “BEND OVER AND TOUCH YOUR TOES” still makes me cringe. He always stepped into his swings to deliver his message with maximum impact. It was as if he wanted the belt to beat my soul from the outside in. When I jumped up in white hot agony I would often get thrashed against my back for standing up and not taking it like a man.

I tried often to make friends with him to avoid beatings, but always to no avail. At eight years old, I was backhanded so hard across the face that the blow launched me into the air. I landed flat on my back, knocking the air out of my body. This response was elicited, for buddying up beside him while lightly teasing Mom that she couldn’t fish as well as us. She smiled at the joke, and the next thing I remember is being on my back looking up in disoriented shame while hearing him proclaim, “That is your mother, she deserves respect.”

She deserves respect.

The irony of his words is a bitter pill. My mother was and is a prisoner. My mother was brutally beaten for being a part of our small community theater where she often played the lead actress. She could really sing and relished the creative outlet. She enjoyed the attention from the community and was regarded as a talented performer. The sad man would pick fights with her, jealous of all the attention she was receiving for her performances. Over the years I witnessed hair pulling, hitting, teasing, and continuous name calling for any number of imagined “offenses.” I do not wish to imagine what happened alone between them, when I was not present. Over the years she has endured physical and mental torment which has forced her into hopeless submission. Eventually, she quit performing and organized her life in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid his wrath.

Mom and I bonded through the degradation suffered at the emotional whims of the sad man.

Fast forward to the strange events of the night before, which set our current escape in motion; when I bore witness to how far my mother had gone in order to cope with her circumstances, living in a prison of abuse.

Michelle and I were tidying up in the kitchen after dinner, when Mom came down stairs wearing a very conservative, ugly night gown that was three sizes too large, covering everything from her neck to her toes, without showing a shred of shapeliness. My eyebrows raised in a haunt when she told me that the gown was “Oomom’s”- the mother of my mother. Oomom had passed away eight years prior to this bizarrely depressing fashion show.

Mom came into the kitchen to fill a large ceramic wash bowl which seemed to match the washbowls of old, in the days before indoor plumbing. She then took the bowl over to where the sad man was sitting in his recliner.

The sad man sat on his plush throne staring at an arbitrary T.V. show with his typical scowl. It’s a look that has set for so long that it has permanently disfigured his face with deep wrinkles that burrow into his cheeks where the corners of his mouth have been pressing downwards for decades. His forehead is forever furrowed in annoyance while he sits angrily perturbed for having to exist in this form, in front of the people living in his house.

Mother kneeled in front of him. What I saw next was appalling.

She picked up the sad man’s crusty and decrepit cloven hooves, and placed them into the washbowl where she proceeded to wash. Carefully, gingerly she wiped dirt and grime from his disgusting feet. Never once did she look up, but kept her eyes lowered as she engaged in her gruesome task. As Michelle and I watched this spectacle, with petrified confusion, we felt trapped in a time vortex that took us to some backward Puritanical subjugation. The sad man’s face never acknowledged this gesture, in fact, his steel blue eyes never came away from the screen.  He sat slumped in paralyzed misery, vaguely disguised as lordship–as if, this act of servitude was owed to him.

We went to bed shortly after witnessing this act. Later Michelle correlated the strange spectacle we witnessed to its biblical allusion. Mom was acting as Jesus did when he washed the feet of his disciples, washing away the sad man’s sins. She hoped somehow to wash away this man’s sins, and with it all the pain, and hurt his existence had inflicted.

My wife and I could not endorse this behavior. We couldn’t shake the eerie discomfort of watching the continued degradation of a beaten woman.  So far gone was my poor mother that I don’t believe she had any thought for herself, or ability to comprehend that she would never wash away his pain, anger, hatred, or self-loathing. She would never save the sad man for he did not wish to be saved. His existence was one so bitter he could only communicate through the pain of others. As much as it hurt me to admit, I could do nothing for my mother and it was time to go.

But not before trying to say goodbye.

My search continues.

I expeditiously shuffle through the dense and festive crowd of locals, keeping my head down so as not to get noticed while sidestepping a unique mix of Salmon “lifers,” various hard candies, and the omnipresent pyramids of horseshit. No sign of Mom, but I run into my dear friend Denise, a motherly figure whom I admire and love.

After a hug and some small talk, she compassionately speaks straight to my soul in a way no other “Salmonite” has, expressing her fondness for the people here, but adding that many circles lack the compassion and emotional fortitude needed to acknowledge the way the rest of the world operates.

My inner voice interprets our frank chat as, “They’ll never understand you, just go and be yourself for the sake of you and your family.” I am so touched that I tear up and hug Denise while the parade provides a continuum of background noise. I finally have spoken permission to leave this place.


I start the small trek back to the car. The noise in my head is abruptly silenced by the arrival of the upcoming demolition derby participants, each clamoring for the crowd’s attention. The processions of once dead cars, now welded together with spare parts, sloppily tagged with spray paint, and nurtured with gasoline, are brought to life for both the sake of hometown glory, and the proverbial key to seemingly everlasting happiness for the winner of the contest: free beer.

Each of these metal bodies is inhabited and operated by its own Dr. Frankenstein. Powered with Fords, GMCs and GEDs this gaggle of motor heads collaborate their cubic inches together in order to ignite a chorus line of rip-roaring power burps while ejaculating toxic fumes into the once fresh mountain air. Their mechanical screams for praise disorient me to the point of nervousness, but I endeavor onward.

Finally, I arrive back at the fireworks stand where a large group of other locals is congregating and chatting–what Salmonites call “bullshittin’” or “shootin’ the shit.”

My brother shows up with his wife and three young kiddos, who are all playing with the girls, throwing poppers, laughing, and carrying on. My brother asks me about my plans and is a bit shocked that I am leaving town, abruptly. My brother is a good man, with a sense of humor, but lacks the sensitivity needed to understand our situation. I tell him we are looking for Mom to say goodbye, so he puts in a call—to someone, I’m not sure who.

I am talking to my uncle when the real fireworks start.

The sad man’s signature dirty blue Dodge diesel roars up, careening onto the sidewalk where 20 plus people scamper to get out of the way.

This sad man made a living, during my time with him and presently, by drilling wells–some 30 years, now. The trademark of this career is that you’re constantly covered in a grimy amalgam of dirt, clay, assorted greases, and diesel fuel. His other signature was his black cowboy hat. He always, and I mean ALWAYS, wore this thing. The hat almost comically matched his personality and outlaw reputation.

Years of hard labor punctuated his strained gait. Multiple back, knee and shoulder surgeries and arthritis plagued the sad man’s physical being. His huge and heavy calloused hands have been torn and patched together with duct tape a thousand times over. The softness of my neck will never forget the galvanized steel grip of those hands. Choking incidences dictated my strict attention. If I was to survive I must not fight back. I had to try to relax my neck under the pressure of those vice like hands. The only aspect of his battered countenance which kept him upright was the prideful male ego borne from the western code that plagues the sensitivity of men with the words, “cowboy up.”

Infuriated, in a complete rage, the sad man rushes toward my uncle and I. He digs his dirty index finger into his bottom lip shoveling his Copenhagen out onto the pavement. He then uses that same finger to ferociously demand my attention by pointing it directly at my head as if it were a loaded pistol, then wordlessly signaling to me that we go away from the crowd. “You, here, now” –is a silent command that everyone heard. I am instantaneously mortified and enraged by his behavior.

I know we aren’t going to talk, (the man has always been incapable of conversation), I also know from years of training that I am about to be publicly abused. Misplaced guilt and shame well up in me, as if I were a beaten teenager, yet again.

My normal instinct is to oblige, but just then a miracle happens. I feel empowered enough to stand my ground, directly replying “No, if there is anything you need to say to me, you can do it right here in front of me.” I am terrified. I actually said that to his face!

We were now in new territory. I made a stand. To this day I am not sure where I found the strength, in that moment, to end a lifetime cycle of abuse with him. Perhaps it was the presence of my wife and kids, and my need to protect them from this. Perhaps it was all the eyes on this spectacle. Maybe I had just reached my breaking point.

He thrusts his barrel chest against mine and gets right in my face. His eyes are blood-shot crimson and boiling. His scowling face is highlighted in a red fury indicating the years of alcohol abuse. His tobacco breath smells like a rotting corpse and overpowers my senses. He growls, “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

He is trying to provoke me and it is working.  The adrenaline is running its intense course through my body, tensing my muscles. Fight or flight mode is in full possession of my facilities.  I growl back in the affirmative, that I know what I am doing. I am getting us the hell out of here.

He pauses for a brief instant, possibly startled. Almost immediately the familiar face of disgust reappears and then it happens. He inhales deeply and spits directly into my face.

The velocity of the Copenhagen-infused slime sends my head reeling backwards. It is in my eyes, my nose, and my mouth. This has to be what death smelled like. If dark seething hate has a smell, this is it. My eyes water with emotion and stinging, searing pain. I am unaware of the sharp intake of breath all around me as the bystanders watch this macabre drama unfold.

Unbelievably humiliated, I am set off, I’ve really had it. The moment has arrived. The vessel of decency that had carried this relationship over thousands of miles of ignorance has finally docked itself in the harbor of indignation. I rear back ready to kill or be killed. A thousand instances of soul shattering abuse are about to rear their ugly heads and I would kill.

I push him—hard.  My uncle moves like lightning between us and his deep voice warns, “SPENCE, don’t…”

The old bull starts circling the young bull as we look to square off with one another. My peripherals sense a growing crowd, I hear children crying among the gasps of the other adults, but this was secondary in this moment. My focus is on him.

Thirty plus years of verbal and physical abuse suffered at the hands this sad man had come to a head and exploded like a volcano. I would rather he hit me again than spit on me. In fact, I beg and egg him on, taunting him so that he would have to punch me.  I stick my chin out, pointing at it, as if to say “right here asshole, put it right here.”

He doesn’t.

I am out of my mind with fear, anger, and confusion. My adrenals help me communicate my disdain in a prominently shouted F*CK YOU! Internally, the impact of these words is the same as if I had given humanitarian aid to ten thousand desert dwellers. Honestly, it feels amazingly liberating to have him know that I am through and that I will stand up for myself.

He looks at me, astonished. Like the dark Emperor did when he oversaw Luke fighting Vader, in pure hatred, as if to say “good, let the hate flow through you.” I had watched a lot of T.V. growing up in an attempt to stay out of this man’s way.

He utters a dumbfounded, “Are you for real?” Separated, now, by a safe distance with my favorite Uncle between us, I proclaim that I am as real as it gets. We are still shouting in inaudible guttural grunts, circling, waiting for a moment to strike.

After what seems like an eternity, but is in reality only moments, the sad man turns his back to me and gimps back to his trustworthy blue Dodge, fires it up, and revs it, as if to drown the noise of this hellish mental torture. He leaves in a sprayed shower of dust, careening out, just as he had come in.

I am shaking uncontrollably as onlookers do their looking, children communicate through cries, and family members shake their heads in united disapproval over what has just transpired.

Michelle and the girls rush to my side to provide aid in the form of hugs and a napkin to wipe the spit that is dripping from my face. I assure them I am alright, though I feel eerily electric and far from alright.

My brother, and his family are supremely upset, and rightfully so. No one should have to see that, let alone children. I try to tell him goodbye though he barely musters enough energy to reply and half hugs me while looking away as if to say, “get out of here.” Abuse in our family in not something you defy. He does not approve.

I walk over to the Burger King bathroom to wash the spit off of my face, still shaking. The stench of putrid soul decay is forever tattooed deep into my epidermis, reminding me that this nightmare has played out into a reality.

I look into the mirror and brave a smile. Just then, a clip from the movie, American Beauty airs in my thoughts. In the movie, upon realizing his wife was cheating on him, Kevin Spacey’s voice mouthed the line promising, “No, no…you…don’t get to tell me what to do…ever…again.”

I gather myself and try my best to put on a nice face when walking back out into the world of rugged landscape and rugged people. My stunned family finishes saying our goodbyes, loads back into the rental car, to trek back to Boise and onward to Japan.

Mom never showed up. We tried calling, but no answer. I thought she would send an email to ask if we were alright. I was sure she would hear about what had transpired. It’s a small town, after all.

Nothing. No text either. In fact, we weren’t to hear anything from her for over eight months. You don’t defy abuse from the sad man was the message I received—loud and clear.

Driving in stunned silence I realized that I was now freed from years of humiliation. I felt free of the guilt and shame for existing as an imperfect human.

I was now independent of my namesake family; freedom forever timestamped on July the 4th. Now and forever my personal Independence Day.

I haven’t spoken to anyone in that family for close to five years.

Some four months after the spitting incident while visiting Prague for the first time, I observed the gloomy Czech tradition of beggars perched upon their knees, hands clasped in a prayer, and head bowed down, so as not to look anyone directly in the face. The beggar’s single paper cup, dug from the trash, precariously balanced, on the uneven cobblestone and anchored with couple of coins to keep the cup from blowing away, in the harsh East European wind, broke my heart in its testimony of their melancholy existence.

The spectacle personified a synopsis of the heart’s condition.


I thought of the sad man.

What once beat boldly with braveness and gargantuan goodness–a human life–is now demoted to begging on the street. With knees shamefully bent to the cold, stained rock, I can see the sad man looking up with those, steel-blue eyes, glazed now with tears tugging on the coattails of anyone decent as if to cry out:

“help me,
I was once good
help me,
I can’t bear the end,
help me,
I want to wake up fresh,
help me,
I want my heart and mind to mesh,
help me…”

Through this strange visualization brought on by the beggar I wonder if the sad man would ever want my forgiveness? Her forgiveness? His own forgiveness? Did he even acknowledge wrong doing? It must have hurt him. Even raising my voice to my beloved wife hurts me and I am truly ashamed.

I am deeply moved and quickly empty the contents of my meager pocket into the beggar’s cup, walking confusedly on.

After writing this I called my Mom. She answered. She sounds good. She’s still with him. I have come to accept that she always will be.

I like to think that the man who beat me, who beat her, who made me hate myself, who made me hurt, so badly I wished to die–feels sadness. I like to think he is sad. I like to think he wants help but doesn’t know how to accept the love we tried to give. I like to think I will not be him, despite my anger, I like to think…

It’s time to start a new chapter.

bio-pic-1Spencer Harber works in personal health practices. He offers a combined 18 years’ experience in a variety of healing mediums. He is a certified coach through the International Coach Federation (ICF) and holds both a Master’s of Arts and Post Baccalaureate Certificate in health & wellness coaching. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Complementary & Alternative Health and is a certified massage therapist. Spencer is a registered teacher with Yoga Alliance USA, after completing yoga studies in Rishikesh, India. As a healer, he has crafted a unique massage practice utilizing acupressure, aromatherapy, Reiki, and myofascial release allowing patients to get reacquainted with their bodies. Through yoga, he works with clients to heal any number of disorders. With the medium of plants, he has found health through nutrition. Writing has opened new doors allowing Spencer to share and coach through the written word, as well. He is currently following his passions for uniting humor and wellness together in a variety of forms.

On Bravery

I get called “brave” a lot. When someone tells me that I’m brave, what I hear is, You are doing something that most people would not do. When someone tells that I’m brave, what I hear is, I would not do things like you do.

To me, bravery has resulted in a necessarily lonely life.

I had lunch with a friend a while ago. I had recently spoken out in a very public manner about an ongoing toxic situation in my department. My friend told of a conversation that she and some other friends had about me. She said, “We respect why you do it, but we wouldn’t do things like you do.”

Her comment hurt–not because of her (I knew that she meant it kindly)–but because of one of the other friends. That friend had been very close to me, but she has mostly dropped out of my life, and the only reason I can find for that is because of my outspokenness. It hurts to lose a friend because we feel differently about activism. I don’t blame her, but I have had to let her go.

I cannot change who I am, nor would I.

When my other friend made that comment to me, I sat at that restaurant table and felt a sting in my throat. I wanted to say, “I wouldn’t do it the way you do it either,” but I didn’t. Instead, I ordered a box for my food because I had lost my appetite.

I drove to my home; it was quiet, and I was all alone with my bravery.

I don’t really know what it means to be brave. I don’t even know if I am brave. All I know is that, if I sit on an injustice, or pretend not to see it, I get physically unwell. I am not naive about the consequences of speaking out, but for me, the consequences of not speaking out are worse.

A couple of years ago, I ended a friendship with a man who pretended to be my friend, who pretended to be a feminist, but who couldn’t bring himself to confront Caleb about what he had done to me. My best friend said, “That is going to eat at his [the man’s] soul over time. That kind of thing [not speaking out] will eat him alive.”

I know that it would eat me alive. I know that it would eat my best friend alive. We love each other because we are both brave, and she would do things the way that I do.

It is easy to speak out when we are removed from the situation, when it’s an election year, or when Planned Parenthood is going to be defunded, or when the ACA is going to be repealed. It is harder to speak out when we are existing in the situation–when it involves our friends, our families, our bosses, our partners.

I am resolved to speak out regardless, even if I lose people in the process.

I am not sure if I am doing the right thing because I have had a lot of loss.

On Memories

This photo was taken exactly a year ago.


That baby was only hours old. She had been born to two of my very best friends, and though they live in Montana, I was en route from Idaho to Ohio and able to take them lunch and steal some time with them.

I had never held any baby that young but my own.

About a month ago, Reed asked me, “Do you think that my dad gets so angry with me because I look just like you?”

Reed is always quantifying how much he is of us. He will say, “I am 70% you and 30% my dad.” His ratios change from time to time, but he is always mostly me.

I recently had this realization that Reed reminds me a lot of my dad, and because we (Reed and I) both adore my dad, Reed latched on to that. He said, “I am most like Grandpa!”

Being like Grandpa probably feels like neutral territory.

The truth is that Reed is 100% himself.

At Christmas Eve dinner this year, Reed told a story about Caleb and his new wife. It was a cute story, but I did what I always do during those stories. I smiled and disassociated. Then, I saw my mother looking at me with pity, and I felt very present. I felt sad.

Later, while I was getting Reed ready for Christmas Eve service, he brought the story up again, and for the first time, I said, “I need you to not tell me stories about your dad and his wife right now. I’m sorry.”

I have never done that before. I have always wanted to protect him from my sadness, but we had come to an impasse. I was going to be upfront with him, or I was going to cry.

He was quiet, then looked at me compassionately and said simply, “That’s understandable.”

I skipped Christmas Eve service. I did this instead.


I told that story  about Reed to a friend today at lunch. We were sitting in a brewpub, and there was a handsome man sitting at the bar alone near us. I told her that story, and many more.

When the man finished his beer, he put on his hat and got up to leave. He stopped and made direct eye contact with me. He smiled a kind smile. His smile told me that he had been listening.

Shortly before, my friend had said about another friend who is in her sixties, “She has just never met someone to keep her company.”

I had said back to my friend, “I think that is going to be me,” and I am finally hitting the point where my friends no longer protest when I say that.

 And then, there was that man standing there smiling at me, and I know that smile. I have seen that smile before. It was an “I would take you home right now” kind of smile. It was also a tender smile.

There is a certain kind of man who can handle the vulnerability of a battered woman. There is a different kind of man who can handle the power of a woman who is successful. I have yet to find the combination of these men.

Maybe that stranger was the man, but I will never know.

He probably wasn’t.

I was visibly grumpy around Christmas. I finally apologized to my mother. I said, “Christmas is just really hard for me. It is hard for me to know that Caleb is married and expecting a new baby, but I am still alone.” I choked up, then grew embarrassed because I am not as strong as my mother. My mother never chokes up at anything.

My mother said, “You just need to choose what to focus on.”

I said, “You need to do more research on abuse and PTSD. You need to learn that it is not a choice.”

She apologized, but I left the room. She followed me then and said, “He may be remarried, but you have done the right thing. You have placed yourself first, and that is important.” She said, “I know you could have had someone. I know you have had options.”

The truth, though, is that a thirty-something woman will never have as many options as a thirty-something man.

While going through an old photo album of my mother’s, I found this photo that was taken at my best friend’s wedding.


Caleb wasn’t a handsome man. Not even close. He knew that. He used to brag about how men didn’t need to be handsome; they only needed to be funny.

I look at that photo and think of how young I was. I wonder how much time I wasted.

We all know that women can’t get away with only being funny. Women need to be young. Women need to be pretty.

Last year, when that photo with my friend’s newborn was taken, I was sleep-deprived because I had spent the night before with someone younger than me. Not indecently younger than me, but young enough to be exciting.

And it had been fun. Carefree in the way that being with a younger man should be.

At one point, he said, “Kelly, I like you.” At another point, he said, “I like your body. You have a nice body.” I wondered if he had read this because I knew that he had read my blog. I appreciated his words because my body is always still a little bit broken.

I remembered the man I had been with before him. That man had told me that he could never read my writing because he didn’t want to feel sad. This past summer, that same man told me, “I feel like an asshole because I don’t read your writing.”

I thought, You are an asshole. I thought, You claim to care about me, but you don’t want to know me. 

I said, “I like it that you don’t read my writing,” but I was lying to myself as well as to him.

After that night with the younger man, I felt energized and appreciated. I patted myself on the back for being able to have casual flings. This was also the time when my book deal was in the works, and then, I got to hold my friend’s newborn baby. It was all too joyful. I felt a lightness that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

2016 was going to be my year.

2016 has been my year, but it has also been a year of undefined grief.

I had my heart broken by the man who couldn’t read my writing, the man who wasn’t a casual fling. I realized that I want something real, and that casual flings aren’t satisfying to me in the way that commitment is. I realized that something real was not within my grasp. I realized that I need to grow comfortable with being alone.

And now, it is possible that I have grown too comfortable with being alone.

I have written a book, and I hope that it is something beautiful, but it has ravaged me.

All of this is a very long way of building up to this: I am a Christmas baby, born during the most “wonderful time of year,” but the first time that Caleb beat me was on Christmas Eve.

To me, Christmas illuminates all that I have lost.

Still, at my lunch today, when I said to my friend that I thought that I was going to be the person who would be alone, I didn’t speak with sadness. I didn’t speak with regret. Choices are hard, and I have made some wrong ones that I now have to live with, but being alone has been the right choice.

Tonight, Reed said to me, “Do you think that being a single parent makes someone a better parent?” Reed assumes that single parents are better than married parents because his lived experience supports this. And I’ve got his back. Sometimes, I miss the memories of us with his dad as a family so much, but I don’t miss the memories enough to try and duplicate that with someone else.

The Salmon river is frozen right now. The other day, I walked over the big bridge in town, and I saw ice stretched out on to the water. I remembered when Caleb and I walked our dog near that river. Our dog ran out on to that ice and slid into the river. I screamed. Caleb stretched out on that thin ice. He grabbed our dog’s paws and pulled him out.

Reed was five weeks old.

As Caleb stretched on to that ice, I thought, “I am going to be raising my child alone.” I thought, “What have I done?”

But though the ice shook and heaved, it didn’t break. The black water ran beneath it–hard, and fast, and cold.

On Success

In the summer before the final year of my MFA program, I hid in my parents’ basement while Caleb, Reed, and I were visiting, and, in a frenzy, I wrote the first draft of an essay titled “Like Mourners’ Bread.” It was a numbered essay about my sexual history, but it was about so much more than that. Ultimately, it was an essay about forgiveness.

I wrote:
The man I married slept with other women when we were dating.  He didn’t call me for weeks at a time.  He showed up at my apartment drunk after the bar closed, acting as though he wanted to see me, but really just wanting a place to sleep.  He lied to me many times.  About many things. 

I didn’t hurt then, because I didn’t want to know what was happening.  His friends tried to warn me.  My friends tried to warn me.  Strangers tried to warn me.  But I was stubborn.  The night before my wedding, my mother held me as I cried.  You don’t have to do this, she said. 

I answered the only way I knew how.  Yes, I do.

It turns out the ex was right.  Being hurt was the thing I loved.

Later in the essay, I wrote:

Seven years later, I’m still with my husband.  He stayed, and I stayed, and it was hard.  So many times, I asked, why, and his answer was always the same.  Because I was ashamed of myself, and I knew you’d leave anyway, so I thought I should just make it happen.  And in some way, I understood.

You see, we were both broken.  Everyone is broken.  Lorelei, the wolf biologist, the anthropologist, the long-haired fellow.  Me, most of all. 

You see, I thought that I was the broken one.

In that essay, I had also written about how, in the Tarot, I was the Queen of Swords. I had one hand extended, but the other hand held a sword. I wrote that I had put down my sword for Caleb.

I had given him both hands.

Caleb suggested the alternate title of “Queen of Swords” because Caleb was always my best reader.

I was in a nonfiction workshop, but I didn’t workshop that essay. I didn’t want to sit during a critique of that essay. I sent it to my thesis advisor though. When we met, he told me that he thought it was my finest work yet.

Once, in my thesis advisor’s workshop, he said about an essay of mine (that I never published), “Why does the husband always come off like a jerk in these kinds of essays?” It wasn’t a criticism. He was just curious, and I hadn’t even meant for Caleb to come off like a jerk.

But you see, Caleb was a jerk.

Caleb was the first reader for “Like Mourners’ Bread.” He read it and said, “It’s beautiful. It hurts to read, but I know that it’s true. I know that I didn’t treat you right, and you have every reason to tell this story.”

And I felt valued. As a writer. As a wife. As a person.

I thought, How many women have a husband who supports their career so fully that they can write painful truths about him, and he is okay with that?

Once, after Caleb and I had been in a fight, my mother cornered me in the kitchen, and she said, “You and Caleb have something special. You have so much in common. That is not easy to find. Don’t give up on that.”

When I won a prestigious award in my graduate program, my mother said to me, “Your father is always so surprised by how easily you can write things!”

We were all in the living room together–my mother, father, Caleb, and me. The fireplace was burning, and the Christmas tree glowed in the corner. Caleb jumped in, and he said, “It isn’t easy for her. She works really hard. Kelly has achieved what she has because of her hard work.”

And I felt valued. As a writer. As a wife. As a person.

You see, Caleb was my best ally.

When we were out in social situations, Caleb would say proudly, “If anyone in this family makes money off of their writing, it’s going to be Kelly, and I’m okay with that.”

When we were with his family, they would never ask me about my writing. They would ask Caleb about his writing. He had one story published in a decent journal, and his mother kept that journal displayed in the living room.

Privately, she told me, “That story was so dark. I didn’t raise him like that.”

I thought, You don’t get him.

I felt pain for him, for the pressure that they put on him to succeed. When he was getting Anger Management therapy (which is not recommended for abusers), he brought home a list of the types of angry men. One of them was The Hero.

The Hero had been valued so much by his family that he couldn’t possibly live up to what they expected of him. The Hero was angry because he had been told that he would have one life, and his life had become another. The Hero was angry because he lived in constant fear of disappointing his loved ones.

The Hero can be nothing but inadequate because no one is a real hero.

You see, we are all just humans.

Around the time that I wrote “Like Mourners’ Bread,” I saw an advertisement for a writer’s conference. It was a conference held by Slice Magazine, and they claimed that they wanted to help emerging writers. They were an amazing journal, the conference wasn’t very expensive, and it had a contest. Only people attending the conference could enter the contest, and they would publish the winner (and pay them a small amount). By then, I had learned that submitting via slush piles was wholly disheartening. I had received too many rejections to count, and I wanted that opportunity.

I had recently received an award from my department that would pay for my travel to a conference, and I proposed that Caleb and I go together. He got travel funding from his department, and we did it. We both entered the contest.

Spoiler alert: I won.

“Like Mourners’ Bread” was published in Slice. It was later listed as a Notable in Best American Essays 2013. When Robert Atwan wrote me to tell me of “It Will Look Like a Sunset’s” acceptance for Best American Essays 2015, he told me that he remembered “Like Mourners’ Bread” and how strong it was.

“Like Mourners’ Bread” was my first real publication.

After getting the news, an agent gave me his card. Caleb took me out for tacos. We drank Margaritas. I saw a pair of really cute boots in a boutique shop in Brooklyn, and he said, “Why don’t you use your winnings to buy those?”

He posted on Facebook about how proud he was of me. Lots of people commented, and I believed all of them, but I am no longer friends with most of those people.

I believed them (and Caleb because, you see, if Caleb had won that prize, I would have felt nothing but happiness for him).

When we returned to our home, I was on a high, but Caleb grew depressed. He lamented how he would never succeed with a short story collection. He lamented his own lack of publication. I tried to console him. Nothing worked.

Then, I received another acceptance. Then, another.

Soon, it was a landslide.

Soon, Caleb was very angry. Too angry.

Soon, he was hitting me.

Soon, he was hitting me all of the time.

He would post on Facebook about how proud he was of me, and there would usually be a delay of a day or two, but then, he would find a reason to beat me.

In the final year of our marriage, I hardly submitted anything for publication at all.

Once, when we were married and after Caleb had gone to bed, and I was still awake with insomnia (which I am prone to), I had a breakdown. I needed to get my anger out. I started weeping, and I punched the couch. While punching the couch, I screamed (internally) because Caleb and Reed were sleeping, “I would give it all up. I would give up every publication if Caleb could just have one.”

You see, I meant it.

But it didn’t work that way. Instead, I left him. Not because of my success, which wasn’t much at the time, but because it was time for me to leave him. I got into the PhD program that he had dreamed of attending (though I couldn’t have predicted that). It was the only program I was accepted to, but I was excited. I called him and told him, and he said, “I’m happy for you.” But then, as was his pattern, he sent me an angry email a day later saying that he thought he should have custody of Reed. Up to that point, he had been outwardly supportive of me leaving the state to get my PhD.

You see, there was always a 24 hour delay between my success and his abuse.

In family court, where I was represented by a free attorney for West Virginia Legal Aid–an attorney who only represents domestic violence victims–I had dropped my request for spousal support. The judge said that he was going to award it (it was a minuscule amount, maybe $100). The judge asked me why I was dropping the request. I said that I was dropping the request because I wanted an agreement. The judge then asked Caleb, “Why don’t you think that you should do this for your wife?”

Caleb replied, “She is going to get her PhD. She will make more money than me someday.”

The judge grew visibly angry. He threw down his pencil. He said, “You should want her to succeed!” He said, “What’s best for her is what’s best for your child!”

The judge was right.

I have no doubt that judge has seen his share of selfish parents (on both sides). I could see the judge’s frustration, and maybe I should have fought Caleb, but I didn’t. And I don’t regret opting out of that fight.

Financially, Caleb came out the winner in our divorce, but I left. I was gone, and that was all that I wanted.

I started submitting my work again after I left Caleb, and everything I submitted was accepted. When “Like Mourners’ Bread” was listed as a Notable for Best American Essays, the first person I wanted to share the news with was Caleb.

It was so soon after our divorce, and I still loved him because I had left a person I loved. Do you know how hard it is to leave someone you love?

I called him from my tiny, overly warm apartment, and he told me in the tone that he had always used, which was a measured balanced tone–“Congratulations, Kelly.”

I didn’t have to worry that he was going to beat me in 24 hours.

When I received my acceptance for “It Will Look Like a Sunset” in Best American Essays 2015, I called him too. Not out of spite, but because I wanted him to hear it from me. I knew that the essay had been legally vetted by then, so I could tell him.

That time, he screamed a guttural scream and ended the call.

Women should not have to fist-fight with the couch while bargaining for our partner’s success. We should not have to fear that our partner will be threatened by our success and punish us.

Women should not have to be small.

I will no longer make self-sacrificing bargains with the universe because I can’t help my partner succeed.

You see, I will no longer be small.

Publisher's Weekly.jpg

On Renewal

I took Reed out to lunch today. Last night, my friend, also a single mother, mentioned to me how people always think it’s so sad to see a mother and child dining alone. I agreed. I remembered when I first became a single mom–how hard it was to go out to eat, and how tenderly everyone would treat us. The grandparents would all smile at Reed, and at me. The servers would slip us free desserts. The other families, the coupled families, were blind to us though. When someone is coupled, it rarely occurs to them that they might one day be that single parent at the restaurant.

Once, out of meanness, I called Caleb, to his face, a “Ruby Tuesday’s dad.”

When I first left Caleb, he would pick Reed up from school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and take him to Ruby Tuesday’s for dinner. They would do Reed’s homework together at the table. The servers must have grown to recognize them–my then-husband and son. Caleb would return Reed to me at seven, and then, I would tuck our son into bed by eight. His bed was a mattress on the floor in the guest room of my friend, Rebecca’s home. That month with her was one of the loveliest periods of my life. How do I describe the kind of intimacy that comes from such pain? And her kindness? And the way that she loved Reed as though he was her own? And the ways in which we rallied together to give Reed the love that he deserved?

There is a special kind of softness to the love that springs from suffering.

Once, Caleb had to meet me on campus with Reed. We met in the student union building, and, when I arrived, Reed ran down the long hallway towards me.

Caleb stood at the end of that hall looking at me, and I wanted to cry out to him, to say something, but the distance between us just grew.

When people ask me now how I have been able to recover, my answer is always the same: I left.

Not Caleb. Not my marriage. Not my job. Not any of that.

I left the state. I burned it all down. I didn’t leave any bridges. I didn’t leave him any way to breach that distance between us.

Reed spent last weekend sanding the floors of the nursery for the new baby alongside his father. When Caleb and I moved into that house, that room was cooler than our bedroom, so we would sit in the now-nursery and watch Friday Night Lights on my desktop computer while the crickets buzzed outside and the windows steamed from the hot, West Virginia air.

I wrote most of my MFA thesis in that now-nursery.

After I left Caleb, I ran on the treadmill in that now-nursery, and listened to shitty pop music, and while Kelly Clarkson or Kanye West would sing “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” I would want to scream, “I am not stronger.”

That house was supposed to be mine, but I let Caleb keep it when I left the state. Sometimes, I wonder if Caleb ever sees my ghost.

I hope that I haunt him. I hope that he is haunted. But we all know that I am the only one who is haunted.

Reed tells me that Caleb still uses the monitor from my old, desktop computer. The screen on Caleb’s laptop is broken because he once slammed the entire thing down on to me while I curled into a ball on the floor.

I am sorry if what I am describing now hurts you. I am sometimes blind to the impact that these stories have on others. They no longer have the same kind of impact on me.

In my literary writing, I am softer with the details. I have discovered there is a balance–reveal too much and the reader will shut down.

There is only so much that any one person can take.

Today, I talked on the phone to a woman who is in the early stages of grappling with her abuse.

Here is what I told her: I told her that I had to come to terms with the fact that I would never again be the person I was when I met Caleb. I told her that I had to grieve and let that young woman go.

I also told her that I am happy with who I have become. I have more of an edge. I am more skeptical. I live daily with the effects of trauma. But I like myself. I know that I am still kind. I know that I am still trusting. I know that I am still honest.

I told her that I am stronger, not because of the abuse, not because of what he did to me, but because of what I have made of myself in the wake of his abuse.

I know that I am damaged, but resilient.

A therapist once told me that resilience couldn’t be taught.

One of my friends, someone who loves me dearly, keeps telling me that I shouldn’t want to change my experience, because Reed came out of my life with Caleb, and because of who I’ve become.

I don’t argue with her because how do I argue with something like that?

But maybe Reed could have come to me in a different way? Maybe Reed could have come to me from a man who loved and respected and didn’t hurt me?

But then, he wouldn’t have been Reed. I get that. I get that Reed is 50% Caleb. Is there a way that I can be grateful for Reed without being grateful for Caleb too?

Is there a way that I can be grateful for who I have become without somehow giving Caleb partial credit for my growth?

I will never know.

Reed was conceived on Valentine’s Day. I was living in an adorable studio apartment with French Doors and a tiny, closet-sized kitchen. It was the happiest period of my life, a period when I felt very independent and fulfilled.

I had made Caleb the most decadent meal. I made a pineapple upside down cake that was from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, and I cut fresh pineapple, then made a caramel, and pieced the pineapple into a mosaic. I then put the cake on the fridge, and when I opened the fridge door, the cake fell down. I laughed. What else could I do? And I scooped up what I could of the cake. I took it to my neighbor’s house and showed him, and we both laughed. My neighbor was an older man. He was very kind. He had a crush on me, and I knew this, but I pretended as though I didn’t. He laughed at my cake, and he told me, “Caleb is very lucky to have you. I hope he realizes that. I hope that you realize that.”

Caleb and I ate what we could of the cake. He kissed me, then said in his West Virginia drawl, “Kelly, I want to marry you.”

He had once told me that he wanted to have four kids, and I immediately responded with, “Okay, but I am not having four kids. I don’t know if I want any kids at all.”

“How about two?” He asked.

Then, we had sex, and the sex was so amazing, and, though I was on birth control, I remember holding my hands on my stomach afterwards and thinking that we had just made a baby.

Reed was born on November, 14.

I was so young. I wasn’t ready, but I made myself ready.

One of the ways that Caleb would apologize after his abuse was by cooking decadent meals for me. He made spaghetti carbonara, and beef pho, and boef bourguignon, and shrimp spring rolls. I ate, and I grew, and I didn’t understand what was happening, why my clothes no longer fit, why I didn’t recognize myself any longer.

When the abuse was at its worst, he tracked down the recipe for that pineapple-upside down cake and  made it for me almost weekly. I thought that the gesture was romantic.

I didn’t realize that I was Hansel in a cage; I was Gretel with her head in the oven.

For a long time I didn’t leave Caleb because I didn’t think that I had the resilience to survive without him. That I was weak and hopeless was something he had convinced me of, but I now know that I am strong.

Maybe it’s because I don’t miss Caleb anymore. Maybe it’s because my body is almost back to the shape that I recognize. Maybe it’s because I know now that what my neighbor said was true, that Caleb was lucky to have me and not the other way around. Maybe it’s because Caleb might have four kids, but he won’t have them with me. Maybe it’s because one child is the perfect number for me. Maybe it’s because Caleb still has that broken laptop, but I have a shiny, new one. Maybe it’s because justice wasn’t served in my case, but I am making my own justice. Maybe it’s because a woman calls me in a panic, and I can tell her with assurance that it gets better. Maybe it’s because I am no longer that panicked woman.

Maybe it’s because the world sparkles most in the wake of great suffering, when that suffering is finally, almost, gone.

Maybe it’s because I am no longer Hansel in the cage. I am no longer Gretel with her head in the oven.

Maybe it’s because I finally shoved the witch in the oven.

Maybe it’s because I closed the door and never looked back.


On Giving Thanks

The other day, Reed said to me, “My favorite birthday was my first-grade birthday when you had all of my friends over, and we wore superhero costumes and had a scavenger hunt.” Then, “You left my dad exactly five days after that birthday.”

You left my dad exactly five days after that birthday.

It was November 19, the day before Thanksgiving.

The next day, I let Reed accompany Caleb to his parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and while Reed was gone, I packed as much stuff as I could and stuffed it into my car. My friend Rebecca was with me. She says now that I was most concerned about taking my plants because they “bring light into a room,” but I don’t remember that.

Rebecca says that I bring light into a room. Rebecca says that I am all light, but I am darkness too.

I give thanks for the light. I give thanks for the darkness too.

I spent that awful Thanksgiving with Rebecca. I wrote about it in “It Will Look Like a Sunset”.

I wrote, “After packing, Rebecca and I ate at a Chinese Buffet attached to a casino because it was the only place open in three counties. The future loomed before me like a buffet full of hungry, lonely people.”

The future is here, and I am alone, but I am not lonely.

I give thanks for my solitude.

I have another essay coming out in Guernica tomorrow. Guernica has been good to me. When this essay was finished, I sent it straight to the Editor-in-Chief,and I wrote to him that I hadn’t been that excited about an essay since writing “It Will Look Like a Sunset.” He wrote back that I was “family.” In the four years since I left Caleb, I have found family in the most unusual places. In Guernica. In my graduate advisor, Dinty. In my favorite writer, Rebecca. In my agent, Joy.

And so many others.

Another writer messaged me a while ago. She said, “How do you cultivate mentors? You know all of the important people.”

I had no idea what to write back. This was not something I had cultivated. I wrote back something true, something like, “By being intensely vulnerable and sincere. Also, hardworking.”

I give thanks for vulnerability.

This new essay was written with Melissa Ferrone, who is a beautiful writer, and also, a campus rape survivor. I have a lot to say about the process of writing with her, but for now, I’ll say this: She is family too, though I have not even met her in person.

What Melissa and I wrote has power.

I give thanks for power.

The irony of this new essay being published on Thanksgiving Day is not lost upon me.

I give thanks for irony.

I am a funny person. This does not come across in my writing, but I am a rather avid Facebook poster, and my humor sometimes comes across in my status updates. Last night, I posted about getting stuck in a dress in a J. Crew store. Literally stuck. Some friends commented with this.


Some other folks commented about how nice it is to see my less serious side emerging. Those who spend time with me in person will know that I am often funny—joyful even—in person. I am not as sad as my writing conveys. I write about sadness, not because sadness is my permanent state of being, but because sadness is what interests me.

I give thanks for the humor that is too often born from sadness.

You know how November is so often the “Thirty Days of Gratitude” month on Facebook for optimists everywhere?

That trend was happening in the November when I left Caleb. Caleb and I both had dark senses of humor, even about the state of our marriage. Caleb had a friend who was having some writing success, and his life was in a constant state of AWESOME. His book was the best! His wife was the prettiest! His kids were the cleverest! Caleb, the man who once confessed that his number one resentment was “other people’s success,” was resentful of that friend, but he would joke about it too.

I cannot do those terrible jokes justice here, but that month, Caleb would come up with mock Facebook responses to that man’s gratitude. Stuff like, “Well, I beat my wife yesterday, and the Zoloft is giving me brain zaps, and, just to piss off my wife, I threw away a perfectly good pork dish that I had labored over.”

And then, we would both laugh. It was the most fucked up kind of camaraderie that two people can have.

After I left Caleb, but when we were still talking on the phone, and he was still hoping to reunite, and I guess that I was too, he told me that, when he was arrested, he had told his mother that it wasn’t the first time he had beaten me. He told her, “Don’t hold it against Kelly. It’s not her fault. This has been happening for a while.”

And God, I loved him in that moment. I wanted to say, “Come over. I forgive you.” I did not say that. Instead, I said, “What did your mom say?”

And he said, “She said, ‘Put your problems at the foot of the cross.'”And then, we both laughed.

Sometimes, I still miss him. That is what fucked up camaraderie will do to a girl.

I give thanks that I don’t miss him very much anymore.

The first Thanksgiving after I left Caleb, I was alone in my new town. I was overcome with grief for all that I had lost. I thought, There is no one who would understand this grief but Caleb (fucked-up camaraderie). I called him. I told him how sad I was. He told me that he was sad too. I was sobbing. Then I think I said something that blamed him for my sadness, and he exploded. He yelled at me, “You are not my problem anymore. Get a new husband to deal with your problems.”

And there I was, all alone in my tiny apartment, and I was no one’s problem.

I give thanks that I didn’t get a new husband to deal with my problems.

The winter after that first Thanksgiving away was so very cold, but I put my head down and I kept going.

I am coming upon my fourth winter out, and I am still going.

I give thanks for progress,

That first Thanksgiving out—the same one when I called Caleb—my new friend Maggie had invited me to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. It was supposed to be a graduate students’ only thing, but her family ended up coming to town, and she still included us. It was lovely. I no longer felt so alone. Maggie had written an essay about her own divorce, and another friend asked her father what he thought of it. He got choked up. He said something like, “It is so hard to find out that your daughter has ended up with the wrong man.”

I thought of my own father, of how he didn’t want me to leave Caleb. Of how hard that was for me. Of how my mother made him call me to apologize, and when he called, he cried. I thought of how my mother told me that my father hadn’t even cried when his own mother died.

I am crying as I write these words, but I cry all of the time, so that means very little.

I feel so angry at Caleb for doing this to my family. He didn’t just hurt me. He hurt us all. He hurt my relationship with my father, which was sacred.

I do not give thanks for the damage that Caleb did to my relationship with my father.

I am tired of the idea that we should always be thankful.

Sometimes, there is no silver lining.

But my relationship with my mother, which was always strained through my teen years and twenties, is the best that it has ever been. That’s a silver lining.

And my father and I went backpacking this past summer for the first time since I had married Caleb. He is almost 70, but he takes great care of himself. We had the same experience that we have ever had backpacking. My brother was there too, and my brother and I chatted while our father listened. My father is a good man—uniquely good—and I have never loved another man as much as I love him. He raised me to be the activist that I am. He raised me to care about everyone, and not just the people in front of me. He raised me to stick to my values, to be honest, and to be consistent.

He messed up when he didn’t support me in leaving Caleb, but I forgive him.

I give thanks for forgiveness.


This One Is Not About Abusive Men; This One Is About The Women Who Enable Them.

I don’t want this to be a political post, but it will probably turn into one.

A friend who I haven’t seen since my honeymoon messaged me last night. She wrote,”We share a lot of experiences (as unfortunate as that may be) but I appreciate you in a way you may not know. I appreciate the fact that you had the strength to get out and not just survive but strive…..You are a special person and anyone who has the benefit of your friendship is graced. I mean these words whole heartedly. I have spent the last few days in a deep depression and crying because of this election and all the triggers but I am trying to come out in the same way I have in the past. Being responsible for my own energy. It is hard, but I am trying.”

I immediately wrote back with all that I appreciate about her, but I also thought a lot about her words. She knew the before Kelly, and I am now the after Kelly. I wondered if she would like the after Kelly as much as the before Kelly?

In my twenties, I was very earnest, very tender, and very naive. I am still earnest and tender, but I am no longer naive. I have a hardness to me now that I didn’t possess before.

I thought of her words, and I thought, Caleb would not agree. I thought, Caleb’s wife would not agree. I thought, Caleb’s friends would not agree.

For so many years, Caleb told me that I was awful. No matter how much my friends reach out to me, it is difficult now for me not to believe that he was right.

That is what abusers do so well. They make the victim think that she deserved it, and then they convince their friends that she deserved it.

I am too often stunned by who will take the side of an abuser. Those people are frequently women, and that, too, feels like a betrayal.

Other circumstances in my current life have put female enablers at the forefront of my mind. I told a friend the other day, “I am constantly amazed at the lengths that someone will go to in order to convince themselves that their friend is a good person.”

My friend replied, “I have done that.”

I have done that too.

When I left Caleb, a friend of his reached out to me with compassion. She told me that she supported us both, and I appreciated her thoughts. At the time, I wasn’t being open about the fact that he was abusive. Later, though, I wrote her and told her what he had done.

She wrote back a long message that I think she thought was compassionate. She told me to dig deep and examine what my triggers were that caused me to stay when things got bad. I read her message, and I was confused. At that time, I didn’t have the lexicon that I have now. I didn’t even know the term “victim-blaming.” Still, I knew that what she was saying didn’t feel right. I wrote back angrily. I wrote that she should be focusing on his triggers rather than mine. That was a huge step for me, and I’m proud of it. As painful as it was, that was the beginning of my healing.

She wrote more of the same to me. She wrote about the power of forgiveness. She wrote about how she believed that Caleb “could and would” change. I wrote to her that he was not even trying to change, that it was pretty presumptuous of her to think that she knew Caleb better than I did when she hadn’t even seen him in years. I sent her a list of resources. I told her to read Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That?

The exchange went on for a long while. Neither of us came to see the others’ viewpoint. Finally, she wrote something like, “Why are you so angry at me specifically?”

I wrote back, “Because I expected better from you.”

When Caleb and I were married, I was the one who kept in touch with that woman. When she had a tragedy, I was the one who reached out to her. Caleb was too self-involved to be bothered with her grief. He kept in touch with her because, out of my compassion for her, I made sure of it.

I knew how much she valued him, and in the end, she valued him more than she valued me.

Even knowing that he was a batterer, she asked him to officiate her wedding. In the grand scheme of her life, his violence to me meant nothing to her.

She is a rape survivor, and I expected better from her.

Three nights ago, I sobbed in my bathroom. Deep sobs that came from my gut. The bathroom has a door that connects to Reed’s room. I thought, “Dear lord, please don’t let him hear me.”

I had not felt pain like that since my divorce.

I did everything that I was supposed to do. I left my abuser. I rebuilt my life. I not only “survived, but strived,” and what did all of that hard work get me? I am once again living under the rule of an abusive man.

53% of white female voters voted for Trump, and this, too, feels like a betrayal.

But those voters aren’t the only ones who made Trump. All of the enabling women in our culture made Trump. That woman who enabled Caleb surely didn’t vote for Trump, but she still made him.

I have a theory about why women make excuses for abusive men, even though most of us have, at some point in our life, suffered at the hands of one. Bear with me here.

Women are raised to be compassionate. We are taught that kindness is the most important virtue that we can have, and we are rewarded for being kind. That gives us a little jolt of good feelings, right?

When my friend sent me that message last night, she also told me that she appreciated my “kind heart,” and you know what? That felt good. I felt rewarded. I basked in the glow of my own kindness. I even felt a little smug.

In the eighth grade, there was a new girl who was being bullied, but she was also a defiant student. She picked and picked at one of the teachers who was a man with a temper. He finally completely flipped his lid and threw a desk against the chalkboard, then sent her to the office. She was understandably sobbing and terrified. The rest of us were silent.

He followed her, then came back and chewed out the entire class. He said, “She told me that no one here is being nice to her. What is wrong with you all?” He said, “She told me that the only person who has been nice to her is Kelly.”

And I felt a deep sadness at that because I hadn’t even been that nice, but I also felt something click in the reward center of my brain. A “look how kind I was!” moment. I felt smug.

And then, one of the guys in class said, “Way to go, Kelly” in a patronizing tone, and the teacher shot me a glance that conveyed that he recognized my smugness, and I was rightly shamed.

Still, none of that involved that teacher accepting accountability for his own behavior. All of it involved conditioning two adolescent girls to believe that they should be kind and humble–even in the face of angry men.

But it’s not just the conditioning. It’s the reward that comes with being a “forgiving” female. When a woman is faced with a situation where an abusive man has hurt a woman, it seems logical that the woman would be angry at the abusive man and feel compassion for the woman, right? But which person challenges our capacity for compassion more? The abusive man or his victim?

It’s the abusive man, which is why I believe that it’s ultimately  more rewarding to be compassionate towards the abusive man.

After all, who is more compassionate than a woman who can find forgiveness in her heart for a monster? That woman is rewarded for her compassion. She recognizes how complicated people are! She recognizes that people can change! She recognizes nuance!

And the abuser is also rewarded for his enabler’s compassion because he is emboldened to keep abusing. After all, if this compassionate woman believes that he can change, then why shouldn’t everyone believe that he can change?

And though statistics show that abusers rarely change, compassionate, enabling women believe that their abuser of choice will beat those statistics. So, in terms of rewards, it’s a twofer–Look how compassionate I am! Look how he changed! 

The person who is not rewarded is the victim–the woman sobbing in her bathroom late at night because she is wondering if what the abuser said about her was real. She is wondering if the fact that he found compassionate female enablers means that her own compassion was the problem.

Maybe her own compassion wasn’t boundless enough.

Another example from my own life. A woman, a survivor of emotional abuse who initially supported me wrote me recently to tell me that she thought I was too angry. She thought I was “hurting the cause.” She thought this because, in the year after I left Caleb, she had told me that a friend of his–I’ll call him “the boatman”–had told her that he didn’t believe me. He had told her that he heard that Caleb and I “beat up on each other.”

She was involved with the boatman at the time, and I was unsurprised by what he had said because he had never struck me as a particularly good guy, but it did give me insight into what Caleb was saying about me, and that was hard. My PTSD was fully engaged for the entirety of that year, and it was awful, and I knew that there were men out there spreading terrible lies about me.

This woman worked very hard to convince the boatman that Caleb had actually, truly abused me, and I will give her credit for that, but still, I eventually confronted him. I told him that what Caleb said had happened was not what had actually happened. And when I confronted the boatman, he turned on the woman because he felt that she had violated his trust in telling me what he had said. I can fully understand how that must have been hard for her because she cared about him.

[For some context, this woman also knew that Caleb had been with a prostitute when we were dating, and she did not tell me before or after the marriage. She told me after the divorce, and when I said, “I would not have married him if I had known that, ” she said, “Oh, I am so relieved to hear that” without, apparently, realizing that she should have been apologizing instead.]

When this woman realized that the boatman, who had implicated me in my own abuse, was mad at her, then she became mad at me. And she wrote to tell me that I was “hurting the cause.” She told me how she had worked side by side with the boatman in order to gain his respect, and she had finally earned it, but that, my confronting him had violated his trust in her, and she had almost lost his respect.

She told me that the boatman had not been Caleb’s apologist, and that he was a good man. Still, one of Caleb’s ex-girlfriends had told me by then that, when she was with Caleb, the boatman had thrown his then-girlfriend off of a hillside and broken her wrist. Caleb, himself, had told me a story of how the boatman’s girlfriend had once driven off while the boatman held on to the car door. Caleb told me that story in a Can you believe how crazy she was? kind of manner, and all that I could think was, “Why the hell was he holding on to the car door when she was trying to leave?”

So, in short, the boatman was Caleb’s apologist, and it’s pretty obvious why.

But what about that woman? Why did she feel so compelled to defend the boatman? Well, let’s break it down.

She said that he was a “good man” even though evidence indicated otherwise, which means that she was really challenging the limits of her compassion: Boom. Reward.

She said that he was not Caleb’s apologist, which means that she was making excuses for him: Boom. Reward.

She said that she had to work really hard to gain his respect: Boom. Extra Reward.

And, ultimately, in all of her commentary, she neglected the ongoing trauma that I am suffering. In her efforts to gain this man’s approval, she shoved my needs (and my story) aside. Her narrative became entirely about her relationship with a man because her relationship with the boatman was where the rewards were.

If I’m being entirely honest, then I have to admit that I think that women’s compassion for abusive men is deeply selfish. We all know that the way to the top is through patriarchy, okay? But combine that with the reward center of our brains that tells us that we’re extra special when we’re being compassionate to awful people, and then, combine that with the reward that we get from earning the approval of otherwise disapproving men, and it’s not so much about the men as it is about how we feel in that moment of approval.

On Facebook, I posted about talking to Reed about the election. I told him about sexism and racism. Someone from my hometown commented, “I respectfully disagree….” then proceeded to talk about how flawed of a candidate Hillary was. I didn’t read his entire comment. Instead, I deleted it and unfriended him, although I basically like that guy and think that he is a decent guy. But how could I make him understand that, to me, it’s not about Hillary being a flawed candidate? It’s about Donald Trump being a sexual assaulter. It’s about me being forced to live with Donald Trump’s voice in my home, even though his voice makes my dog, who also has PTSD ,shake. It’s not about her. It’s about him.

Later, another person from my hometown commented. It was a woman. I never liked her anyway, so I didn’t feel any qualms about not reading her comment or deleting it (she had already unfriended me), but I did wonder why I had more compassion for the man who had commented than I had for the woman? Truthfully, I think it’s just because I really, really didn’t like that woman already, and I did like him. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe I’m being harder on her.

But, either way, they both voted for the abusive man, and a vote for the abusive man is a vote against me, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and all of the other women who were sobbing in their bathrooms the other night.

And to the 53% of white women who voted for the abusive man: I expected better from you.

On Warmth

Our house was cold today. It is a drafty house anyway, and the air outside was damp and cold. The trees are beginning to drop their leaves. The holler was at its loveliest during this past week, which means that the long, gray winter will set in soon. At a meeting yesterday, we talked about the seasons, and folks were divided. One woman said that the joy of seasons is that, once we’re getting sick of one season, that season changes. A man who had lived in southern California said, “But what if it was always just pleasant summer?”

And I savored that thought: What if it was always just pleasant summer?

This morning, while wrapped in the warmth of my blankets, I had the most pleasant dream. I woke up at the usual time, the time when I would usually take Reed to school, but I realized that I could go back to sleep. I slipped easily back into my dream, and I floated between the dream and wakefulness. Just when the dream was reaching peak pleasantness, Reed opened my door and said, “Mom, can I have a snack?”

“Of course,” I said, then settled back in for more dream.

Then, he was back to the door, “Can I have Goldfish?”

“Sure,” I said (selfishly, because it was too early for Goldfish), then settled back in for more dream.

Then, at the foot of my bed, “Mom, can you open the box for me?”

Finally, I sat up. I struggled with the top of that damn Goldfish box.

“I’m sorry to keep disturbing your sleep, mom,” Reed said.

“Oh, honey. It’s okay,” I said. I said this very tenderly because what I really wanted to say was, Thank you for being the kind of child who lets his mama sleep in on the weekends.

Reed has been apologizing a lot lately. The other day, he asked me to help him open one of those little cheese rounds–the ones in red plastic–because he didn’t know how to do it. I said, “First you pull the string, and then….”

He interrupted me, “Oh, I know now!” he said and grabbed it out of my hands, then he quickly looked worried. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Why? You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said.

“My dad would yell at me about something like that. He would say that I’m being rude,” Reed said.

Maybe it was rude. I don’t know. Maybe I am too easy on Reed. The other night, we didn’t get home from soccer until quite late. I told him that he could wait and take his shower in the morning, and he said, “Don’t tell dad. He’ll think that you are being a bad mom because you let me go to bed without showering.”

And so Caleb and I are at an impasse. I think that he is a bad father because he is too hard on Reed. He thinks that I am a bad mother because I am too easy on Reed.

And Reed? He’s trapped in the middle of two people who think that the other is bad. I don’t see how anything good can come out of all of that bad.

I had a really tough week. There is stuff going on in my department at work that brings me a lot of distress. It makes me want to avoid campus. It makes me feel unsafe there–not in a physical way, but in an emotional way. My emotional health necessarily occupies a lot of my time and care. I am not fragile, but I wouldn’t describe myself as entirely strong either.

Someone in a position of authority dismissed my concerns because that person didn’t feel the situation affected me directly, and maybe that person was right, but all I can say is that my fear, and sadness, and anxiety over the situation are all real, and I hurt, and while I am someone who is maybe more likely than many people to hurt for others, that is not necessarily what is happening here. I am hurting for others, but I am also hurting for myself.

I am hurting because I am realizing the legacy into which I am bound. I can leave the small town that I grew up in, but I can never really leave the men who called me a “fucking dyke” in high school because I didn’t fit into their idea of what a woman should be. I can leave my abusive husband, but I can never really put his voice behind me. I can leave my workplace, but I am bound to encounter all of the same problems elsewhere.

None of it matters anyway because, at night, when I am in my home alone, I will turn on my television, and all of those voices will be right there in my living room. They will be glaring at me from the screen, and though I might have left everyone behind in an attempt to escape, I will still find myself alone with an abusive man.

There is no escape.

The other night, I picked Reed up from his dad. When I got home, my brother called, and we talked for a long time, for over an hour. Finally, when Reed realized that I wasn’t going to stop talking, he came and stood in front of me and whispered, “Mom, Dad’s new wife is pregnant.”

I stood there, looking at Reed, my brother chattering on the other end of the line. I told my brother that I had to go.

I thought to myself, “Well, that’s no surprise.” I thought to myself, “This is exactly what I predicted would happen.” I thought to myself, “It’s like Abuse 101 to impregnate the victim so quickly.” I thought to myself, “Wow, it’s really true that abusers have patterns.” I thought to myself, “That asshole couldn’t even give the son he already has time to get used to the new marriage before thrusting this upon him.”

I reached out and hugged Reed, “How do you feel about that?” I said.

“Good, I guess?” he said.

“You’re going to be a great big brother,” I said.

This morning, I cooked Reed his favorite breakfast. As he was digging in, he said, “This tastes so good.” He said, “Thank you for making this, mom.” Then he said, “I am glad that you and my dad are divorced because you are really nice, and my dad is not, and because he abused you, he probably always would have won, and then, I wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy your niceness except for when my dad went on vacation.”

All of which was a very ten-year-old way of saying, “I remember how we lived, and I know how it would have turned out.”

It was good for me to have the reminder—not just of Caleb’s anger, but that, for as long as I had stayed with Caleb, Reed never really would have gotten to know me because I was eclipsed by Caleb’s anger.

Today, Reed let me write all afternoon in my loft while he read a book on the couch. We have a comfortable pattern. It may not be the most exciting life, but we are happy. Still, the house stayed chilly. Finally, when I needed a break from the chapter that I was working on, I came downstairs. I put on an episode of Bob’s Burgers. I said, “It’s kind of cold in here, don’t you think?”

Reed said, “Yes, but my blanket is so warm. My blanket is so big. There is room for you too. Here, mom. Why don’t you share it with me?”

Reed is not a physically demonstrative person. He hates hugging. He hates cuddling, and he was born that way. He didn’t even like to nurse when he was a baby.

Still, he is very loving. He loves in different ways, like sharing his blanket. I shared that blanket with him, and it might not have been the same as having an ever-present summer, or an escape from an abusive marriage that didn’t somehow involve lasting trauma, or a workplace that felt supportive rather than divisive—but it felt like a lot. It felt like a moment of great significance.

I can’t change much, but I know that, by changing my own future, I changed Reed’s future. As we laughed at a silly show together and shared a blanket, we both felt loved, and we both felt safe.

We both felt warmth.

The turn on our road right before our house.

On Money

I think about money a lot. This is the condition of being working-class. I know that I won the book lottery, but it wasn’t the book Powerball. It was more like the book scratch-off ticket. Someone wrote to me–not without resentment–“you just got this humongous book deal.” I’m not sure why she thinks that I have a humongous book deal, but I have never been anything but working class. I am still working class. I am still driving the same dented car. I am still living in the little cottage in the holler. I am still washing all of my own dishes by hand because I don’t have a dishwasher. My retirement fund recently told me that I will get $300 a month when I retire. It is not lost on me that even this, a retirement fund, is a privilege that so many others don’t have.

For years, I have only worn one pair of shoes per season. In the past few winters, it has been the same pair of black Merrell boots. In this past summer, when I had a book advance, it was a pair of Birkenstocks that I had found on sale. The two summers before were a pair of Danskos that I had found in a thrift shop for two dollars.

I am going on the job market, and while I know that I am stylish, I am not a “professional” dresser. I need to upgrade my wardrobe. I told my friend about my pattern with shoes. My friend was quiet for a long time. She is an assistant professor and has an Ivy League education, but she is not snobby (though we have obvious class differences). Along with my single mother friend, she  is my best friend in this town. I could see her ruminating. I thought that she was thinking of shoe suggestions for me, but then she said, with a certain amount of sadness, “I never realized that you only wear one pair of shoes per season.”

Later that evening, I sent her pictures of a couple pairs of shoes. “Which ones should I buy?” I asked.

She wrote back, “Both.”

I bought one pair.

I posted this article recently by a writer who had written that she had sold a book to “critical acclaim” but then went broke. I’m not going to link to it because it annoyed me, but it can be found easily enough with a Google search. A friend who I trust said that the writer’s novel is great, and I don’t doubt that, but her tone in that article was so off-putting. A summary: though the book was critically acclaimed and received blurbs by famous writers and even musicians, she didn’t come close to paying back her book advance. She quit her job at a nonprofit so that she could focus on writing full-time, but she didn’t have enough left over from the book advance to feel comfortable because she was relying on her husband’s income. Quitting her job put pressure on her marriage, and also, she wasn’t writing anyway. She tried working for the Postal Service but discovered that, at the end of the long days, she couldn’t write.

In one particularly entitled screed, she listed all of the jobs that she could have if she wanted them. They were jobs that many people would kill to have, that I would kill to have, but then, she said that she didn’t want to work one of those jobs. She wanted to be paid $40,000 a year just to write. That was her final conclusion.

The first part of the article resonated with me. I feel a lot of anxiety about not paying back my book advance, about disappointing my publisher (to be clear, my editor seems perfectly happy with the book, and my anxiety is likely unwarranted). I feel a certain amount of anxiety about my second book, but not too much because I am already doing a lot of writing outside of the memoir that will be turned into my second book. I feel no pressure to make any money off of a second book because it has never occurred to me that I could make money off of a book.

Most of all, I feel a lot of anxiety about going broke. Anxiety about going broke is in my bones. In my spine. Anxiety about going broke propels me forward, keeps me taking other work, and keeps me producing.

That is why I’m not quitting my day job, whatever that job ends up being. On my Facebook post, one professor implied that I think of academia as a job rather than a career. She did her PhD in the same program as me, and I do think that there is a lot of tension amongst folks who are getting the PhD in Creative Writing, and folks who have MFAs, and folks who make a living off of their writing (those folks being in the position to just sit back and observe the ongoing conversation), but I disagree with her about how I distinguish a j-o-b, job. I’m getting the PhD because I’m a scholar in addition to being a writer, and I don’t see those two things as being in opposition to each other. I  also think that teaching creative writing is a way of turning my work and love into something larger than myself, and that is the kind of alchemy that a writer cannot find in another profession, like say, the Postal Service.

I recognize that academia throws up obstacles to writing, but it’s also uniquely supportive of writing as research. I’m inclined to think that someone who doesn’t recognize the privileges that academia affords writers has never worked a 40 hour a week job for the Postal Service, or in my case: dishwashing, waitressing, ski lift operating, digging rocks out of streams full of cow shit, etc.

But I’m digressing.

There were a lot of comments on my post, and there was a lot of contention. One friend, also a single mother, astutely pointed out that the writer didn’t talk about improving working conditions for all writers, but only for herself. Another friend, the famous writer who generously let me stay in her gorgeous San Francisco house this past summer, pointed out that, ultimately, literature is democratic, and if one doesn’t sell books, they can’t really expect to make money off of their writing. Still other friends agreed with the writer, and if I’m going completely honest, that peeved me.

It peeved me in such an unexpected way. I was even peeved at my best friend who I love like family. I was peeved enough to give her the silent treatment when she called me (because she could tell from my comments that I was peeved). I ignored her call and texted, “I don’t want to talk to you,” which was really unusual for me. Even then, I realized that part of the reason that I didn’t want to talk to her was because I knew that I couldn’t articulate the source of my frustration.

But I have had more time to think about it, and I realize that I am resentful of people who are partnered. I work really hard not to resent others because I don’t think that jealousy gets anyone anything. The person who sent me that resentful message about my “humongous book deal” is certainly no closer to getting her own book deal because she has spent time resenting me.

It occurred to me that, in the comments on that Facebook post, the people defending the article were primarily partnered women (I think that men were mostly absent from the conversation, as they usually are on my posts). That author was able to quit her job and try to focus on writing full-time because she had a partner who was willing to support her. She discovered that set-up didn’t work, and she was resentful. I get that. But to then propose that the world owed her some kind of monetary compensation anyway?

Do I think that art should be valued more than it is? Of course. Do I think that writers should be compensated more than they are? Of course. Do I think that a successful writer should be able to make a living off of their writing? Of course. But this is not always the reality of the world that we live in. The writing world, just like the rest of the American economy, is capitalist, so we must find ways to work within it, or we must change it.

I’m happy to agitate in an effort to change the entire system, but I am not concerned with the complaints of a disillusioned writer who thought that they were going to get rich off of their book and didn’t.

Ultimately, though, I guess my resentment stems from the fact that anyone who thinks that they can quit their day job and write exclusively must already have a support system in place. Maybe that support system is that they’re actually making enough money off of their writing, in which case, that’s fantastic, and I commend them. Maybe they have an inheritence. Also awesome (I don’t commend unearned money, but I don’t resent it unless it’s treated as a nonentity by the inheritee).

And maybe they have a partner who is willing to assume part of the burden of that loss of income. I get that, and I support that, but having a partner who can assume the burden of part of the bills is a privilege. I call it “partnered privilege.” Do I resent someone because of their partnered privilege? No, not until they start writing essays about how they should get paid $40,000 a year just to write.

Or until they start defending those essays.

Single mothers can’t even entertain the thought of quitting their day jobs to write exclusively.

I will never get to think like that.

When I was in San Francisco this summer, I loved the city. People kept asking me, “Would you like to move here?” My response was always the same, “Not unless I win the Powerball.”

You see, I’m only one person, but I have a little one who is dependent on me. When I divorced Caleb, I made concessions that I probably shouldn’t have made because I wanted so badly to be free. I gave up about $40,000 in equity in the house. My lawyer had put a request in for spousal support, and Caleb threatened me. He said that, if I didn’t drop it, he would file a motion to keep me from leaving the state with Reed. My mother actually said, “Maybe you’ll have to leave Reed for a while,” which frankly, is one of the most progressive and feminist things that she has ever said, but we all knew that I wasn’t going to leave Reed with Caleb. So I dropped the request.

At our one and only divorce hearing, the judge was angry, he asked me why I had dropped that request. He told me that he had been planning on awarding it. I was taken aback, and I said, “Because I wanted an agreement.”

He then asked Caleb why he wasn’t okay with paying me spousal support, and Caleb said, “Well, she’s going to get a PhD, and she’s going to make more money than me someday.”

The judge threw down his pencil.

He raised his voice. He shouted at Caleb something like, “She is the mother of your child. You should want her to succeed. You should want to support her in that. What’s good for her is good for your child.” But Caleb doesn’t care much about what’s good for me or what’s good for our child, so I am on my own.

In San Francisco, a friend took me out to dinner. I told her that I could never move there, that I can’t afford to pay the rent on a two-bedroom in an expensive city. She said, “But don’t you get child support?” And I was open. I gave her the amount. She was shocked. “That’s almost nothing,” she said. And she was right. It’s almost nothing.

I am not just on my own; I am on my own while supporting someone else. Would I like to quit my job and just write? Probably not because I actually like having something in my life besides writing,, but it doesn’t matter because I’ll never even entertain the thought. I’ll never have enough privilege for that fantasy.

The debate about whether one can make enough money off of their writing to pay the bills will continue, but let’s be honest, it will also continue to be by those who can pay their bills in other ways. Those of us who are sitting on a power bill that is three months long will just keep watching, observing, and wondering how it would feel to have that kind of security.

On Power

One of the first blog posts that I wrote was titled On Powerlessness. Today, I barely remember those feelings. I barely remember that tiny apartment on the third floor where the college student below us left us nasty notes on our door because Reed was a second-grader who liked to dance whenever he was excited.

I barely remember having Reed on free lunch at school, or how the kid next door had braces that were made out of fishing wire, or how there was no grass for a little boy to play on, or how when I walked the dog outside to go to potty in the winter, his paws would crust in ice so quickly that I’d have to carry him up the stairs, or how, while I was walking the dog, I would lock the door to the apartment and tell Reed that I would knock three times so that he would know it was me and let me back in, but still, sometimes, he would be afraid, and he would stand on the other side of the door and cry out, “How do I know that you’re my mom? How do I know that you’re my mom?”

I barely remember Caleb calling me and telling me, “I know that you’re the reason I’m not going to jail, and I appreciate that, and the judge told me that I have to write you a letter of apology, and I’m going to take the time to do it right.”

I barely remember Caleb’s sincerity in that moment. He was not all monster. He knew that what he had done was wrong, and that, by that point, he would never get me back, so he had no reason to lie. But the truth is that, although Caleb is not all monster, he is still, mostly, monster. When his lawyer warned him that anything in that letter could later be used against him, he ceded the letter writing authority to the lawyer who wrote me The Letter.

I barely remember never getting that apology that Caleb had promised.

I barely remember that feeling of powerlessness. At this point, I have written about it all so much that it has become narrative. I’m not even sure that my own memories feel real anymore.

What is real is the power that I felt last night when I ran for miles. I realize this isn’t much, but when I left Caleb, I started running as a way of escaping the pain that was inside of me. I wanted the physical pain to obliterate the emotional pain, but I hated working out. My friend Megan advised me to put aside my music snobbery. “I know that you like good music,” she said, “But, to work out, you need to listen to pop music.” She was right. I added a bunch of pop music to my playlist. I ran, and it hurt so much. I could barely make it a mile. Before my marriage, I had been very active, but I lost that completely while I was with Caleb. He preferred to have me inactive.

In the wake of leaving Caleb, I ran, and I listened to pop music, and that pop music was what inspired “It Will Look Like A Sunset” It was the Kelly Clarkson song, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.” I ran, and I cried, and all that I could think was, “I am not stronger. I am not stronger. I am not stronger.”

Before revising that essay, the last line was, “I am not dead, but I am also not stronger.”

But here I am–three years later–and I am stronger. I can also run a lot farther than a mile.

Reed had two friends–twins–stay over last night. It was his first sleepover, but both boys are sweethearts, so the evening was really easy for me. Those boys are part of a wealthy family and live in a humongous house with an in-ground pool and horse stables, but still, one of the twins said to me, “Your house is the perfect size. Not too small, and not too big.” They are so polite. Their parents have raised them well.

The boys were a little freaked out by the bugs in our house, and one of the boys had a bad dream that a man in a black suit with a white face was walking back and forth outside. I’m not going to lie, okay? The house that Reed and I live in is a little creepy. It’s falling apart. The bathroom door doesn’t fully close. There is a whole section of door trim that has fallen off (with exposed nails) resting against the drier. The place is covered in bugs, and the house is in the holler where everything is darker, and louder and also, somehow quieter than everywhere else. But still, this morning, one of the twins said to me, “I wish we didn’t have to go so soon.”

And when their parents picked them up, the mother and I chatted for a bit. Before the boys, she had one of “those marriages,” meaning a marriage like mine, and she gets it. Maybe that’s why she’s had Reed over to her house, and why she lets her kids come to mine, because the truth is that most of the other parents are standoffish to me. It is not easy to be a single mother in this town. I am always the one reaching out. I can’t think of anyone who has reached out to me.

But this mom gets it. She doesn’t judge me, and although she is now in a good marriage, and they are rich (by my standards), she empathizes with Reed and me. The boys were leaving, and Reed asked them if they’d taken their “European money” because I had given them all some leftover Euros that I had. The mom and I then talked about Belgium. We had both been there recently. Telling her that I’d been in Europe for almost a month made me feel powerful. I then told her about my book, and you know what? That made me feel powerful too.

But it didn’t make me feel as powerful as when that little boy said, “I wish we didn’t have to go so soon.” That made me feel powerful because I knew that I was doing everything that I could to create a home where kids would feel welcome and cared for.

For a long time, I put off leaving Caleb because I didn’t think that I could take care of Reed on my own. Caleb had deliberately cultivated a sense of powerlessness in me.

Now, it’s just Reed and me. Reed has never not been on the Honor Roll. He’s run for student council twice and lost twice, but both times, he’s accepted that loss with good humor. He plays soccer, and he just joined cross-country, and well, he’s just a really good kid.

And that makes me feel powerful–that, despite all of the terrible stuff that Caleb has brought into our lives, Reed is still doing fine, and Caleb cannot take any of the credit for that.

Here are some other things that make me feel powerful:

No longer finding it necessary to tell Caleb how much he has damaged Reed and me.

No longer finding it necessary to tell Caleb’s friends and family how much Caleb damaged Reed and me.

No longer worrying about whether it was my fault.

No longer having night terrors every night.

No longer worrying about how I’m going to talk to Caleb about our inability to pay the bills (which always threatened his masculinity when we were married).

My ability to pay the bills on my own without stress.

Being able to watch whatever I want to watch on television.

Knowing that my house is clean because I cleaned it myself, and that, I don’t owe some abusive asshole sex, or penance, or whatever it was that he wanted, because he, maybe, did the dishes.

This. Right now. This moment.

Climbing a mountain with my father and my brother–both good men. I smoked them. Honestly, I hurt my body with that hike. I pushed too hard and didn’t feel it. Abuse taught me how to not feel pain. I could tell that my dad and brother were kind of shocked. My body was only a vessel, but I felt powerful. My knee later told me that I was not as powerful as I had thought, but I still own that moment of power.

When I was grumpy and yelled at Reed, and he later said, “I knew that you were going to apologize. My dad never apologizes, but I know that you’re different.”

When I know that I am, unequivocally, the better parent.

When I realize that I could finish my PhD within the year.

When I stand in a river with my skirt held up around my waist and laugh to a man who will love me in that moment, but not forever.

When I travel by myself in Europe.

When I spend two weeks in San Francisco in my favorite author’s house, and I have a bit of a breakdown, but also write some of the most important stuff for my book.

When I come back to my real life, and am told by the man by the river that he does not want to be a stepparent.

When the man by the river says, “I feel like you could find someone better than me,” and I respond with, “I already knew that.”

When I realize, that for the first time in my life, I know what I want, and I’m willing to wait for it, and in the meantime, I’m okay with being alone.

When I fall asleep with my head on a different man’s shoulder, but I know that I will wake up safe because he is a friend.

When something that has not happened yet.

When the future is not so frightening.

When I open my heart to other men.