On Forgiveness

Idaho or Montana, or somewhere in between, on my first Christmas without Reed.
Living in an Appalachian Hollow is like living in an embrace that is sometimes beautiful, and sometimes overly familiar. The landscape around me is alive and hugs my home tightly. The organic world creeps into my house. I have to lock the doors tightly, or I wake to find them blown wide open, leaves scattered across the floor. When it rains, I hear the rain pattering on the sky lights above me, and the sound is beautiful until I discover water pouring in through the kitchen ceiling. Reed and I have named the spiders so that we’re no longer afraid of them. We have both stopped screaming when we see a bug larger than my fist. Mouse nests inhabit my drawers. The mice are particularly partial to my collection of vintage table cloths.  

It is sometimes hard to know here whether I have an intimacy with nature or whether I am being assaulted by it.

Last winter, we were snowed in too many times. Last winter, Reed said, “I think we’re going to get cabin fever again.” Last winter, I was trying to write a book proposal, edit a magazine, take graduate courses, travel to conferences and speaking engagements, and meet my translation requirement, all with a son who was home from school on snow days for nearly a full month. Last winter, my translation instructor told me, Kelly, you don’t get a pass, and I cried for an entire day. Last winter, I drove through blizzards to take my son to see Caleb in West Virginia, but when I asked Caleb if his parents would watch Reed for a couple of days, Caleb said, “I will not ask my parents to help you.” 

Last winter, my pipes froze. Last winter, my furnace couldn’t keep up with the sub-zero temperatures, and Reed and I huddled next to each other under a down comforter while the temperature in the house dropped to near freezing. Last winter, my electric bill was $500 one month, my child care was just as much, and I won’t even tell you how much money I was making. Last winter, I asked Caleb to help supplement the extra cost of child care for the snow days, and he said, “Take me to court.” Last winter, I knew that I could have taken Caleb to court and received more support, but I also knew, as well as he did, that I had neither the energy nor the time for that, so, instead, I sucked up the costs myself. 

Last winter, a newish friend inexplicably ended our friendship, and although I have no idea why, I have convinced myself that it’s because I wasn’t cheery enough, that it’s because I was a downer. I haven’t felt comfortable since then in reaching out to my friends in Athens when I feel troubled. I save my troubles now for my closest friends who talk to me on the phone, but who, always, feel too, too far away. 

I require a fair amount of solitude, but I also like company. 

Last winter, I discovered the difference between solitude and loneliness. 

I’d still take the loneliness over Caleb’s company. That, at least, is true.

Last winter, I told someone I cared about that I couldn’t talk to him anymore. Last winter, on the same day that I told the person I cared about that I couldn’t talk to him anymore, Caleb handed me a box that he had supposedly “found.” It was a box full of love letters to me (both from him and former lovers). Last winter, Caleb fell in love with someone else. Last winter, Caleb must have decided he no longer needed to steal my love letters because he loved someone else. 

Last winter, I shoved that box of love letters into the back of a closet. 

Last winter, I watched the movie version of Wild. Although I liked the book, the movie affected me in a more visceral way. It made me want to change my life. It made me want to create something beautiful. It made me end that relationship that wasn’t serving me well at the time, but which I have been able to revive as a somewhat complicated friendship. Last winter, I discovered that Appalachian winters can be brutal. 

In my experience, much of Appalachia is brutal. I know that I am turning Appalachia into Caleb; I know this is unfair.

Tonight, I took the trash  outside and stopped. The air was crisp and cold. I could smell the smoke from my neighbor’s wood stove. The stars hung above me, so silver. I shivered in that cold and remembered my winters in Idaho. Winter was my favorite season in Idaho. The smell of the wood smoke. The sound of the snow. The way, when we skied, the snow muffled every sound except the whoosh, whoosh, of our skies. The way the sound of a clump of snow falling to the ground from a tree branch was so familiar. The crunch of snow shoes up a mountainside. Snow so dry that, with the proper clothing, I could comfortably sit in it, even sleep in it. The feeling of sitting in hot springs right next to icicles. 

The sound of my father stoking the wood stove in the hours before dawn broke. The way our house was always warm. The gurgle of the coffee machine. The door opening to let the dog out. The muffled sound of the morning news. The feeling of having a father in my home. 

Oh god, how did I not know that I was lucky just to have a father in my home? That my own child wouldn’t even have that?

I was born during an Idaho winter.

I have only ever fallen in love during an Idaho winter.

I am coming upon another Appalachian winter, and this terrifies me.

My essay  came out recently in Best American Essays. I was honored to discover that Ariel Levy singled out my essay in the introduction. She mentioned my innocence as I peed in the snow outside Caleb’s mountain cabin in the Idaho winter while he slept so peacefully inside. I fell in love with Caleb in that cabin. We slept on a couch, and it was so hot because the wood stove was too much for such a small cabin. I was bitten by fleas because he had covered me in a blanket that the dogs had been sleeping on. There was so much that I could have singled out about that experience besides that peaceful moment in the snow. I could have singled out the married couple whose property Caleb was living on, and the husband who was an alcoholic who slept with any woman who would sleep with him, and the wife who was a beautiful, gentle, doomed soul.

I didn’t single them out because I wanted to focus on the joy I felt rather than the hairs raised on the back of my neck. Also, because in the morning, when Caleb and I had breakfast with that married couple, the wife looked at me with such pity that I realized she thought that I was the doomed one. The truth is that we were both right. We were both doomed. If I can give any woman a single piece of relationship advice, it’s this: If a woman looks at you with pity and/or seems sad for you, then run from that person you are with, because we know. We know.

So many women looked at me with pity when I started dating Caleb.

Shit, Caleb’s guy friends even looked at me with pity. That’s a really bad sign.

But this was going to be a post on forgiveness, so how does forgiveness fit into all of this? I don’t know. I’ve been trying to forgive Caleb. I’m writing about him, and I don’t want him to be one-dimensional, and that requires that, in my memory, I access the side of him that I loved, which would maybe, maybe, allow me to forgive him.

Part of the beauty of writing about suffering is that it allows us to take control of our own narrative. Caleb took my story away from me. He made it his story. But I now have the opportunity to take my story back.

So how do I access forgiveness without making excuses? 

The answer is that, I just don’t know. I felt like maybe I was making some progress towards forgiveness, which is why I started this blog post, then I started writing, and I clearly haven’t forgiven. Earlier, I reached out to some women who have been through the same kind of suffering, and although all of their opinions were differing, what I came to learn through their stories is that our anger is also our protection, and maybe I shouldn’t try to force forgiveness for someone who doesn’t want it. 

The problem with being in a forced relationship with an abuser (through our child), is that I can’t do all of the recommended things that people should usually do with an abuser. I can’t cut out contact. I can’t ignore him. I can’t pretend he doesn’t exist.

We are raising a child together. We are stuck together.

So maybe, for me, forgiveness just isn’t possible right now. I have full certainty that, if he came to me, owned up to what he had done, and asked for forgiveness, I would forgive him. I didn’t survive almost nine years of marriage to that guy by being unforgiving. But forgiveness is not what he wants. He wants to perpetuate my suffering, so I can’t offer forgiveness to him in this moment.

To offer him forgiveness would mean re-enacting our abusive pattern.

And forgiveness of the self? Well, that’s a whole other can of worms.

But what I can tell you is that I’ve now made it through two Appalachian winters, and I came out kicking both times. I’ll make it through as many Appalachian winters as I need to because, at this point, I’m pretty sure I can make it through anything.

And though the Appalachian winters are hard, they offer gifts. I found this one on my floor two winters ago, and the hope it offered me then has come true.

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