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.

On Darkness

The holler is dark at night. The only light is the glow from other people’s homes, but there is only one home near me. I am up the latest. Once, my neighbor said, “Do you work at night? I can see the light glowing in your loft.” I told her that my loft is where my office is, and yes, I work at night. My habits changed a bit when Reed was young, but I have settled back into my routine. I am writing this now while the night sky is black from clouds, and the crickets and frogs moan their nocturnal hum.

Reed woke up and told me that he had heard something banging around outside. I told him that it was probably just a critter.

I locked the doors.

I don’t like locks. I have discussed this previously.

I have been tired for the past couple of days. Drained. Last night, I almost nodded off on the couch. I went to bed at ten, which is rare for me. I had a dream. The arms of a skinny stranger were wrapping around me tightly where I lay. I felt his beard against my cheek. He looked exactly like Caleb, but in my dream, I wasn’t aware that he was Caleb. He wore a plaid shirt. He wrapped me in those skinny arms–an embrace–but the embrace got tighter and tighter. I grabbed his arms and wrestled against them. I pushed as hard as I could. We went back and forth, and then I won.

I dragged him to the door, and I pushed him out of it. I said to him, “Don’t ever come here again.” I locked the door.

Then I woke. My heart raced. My arms were sore.

I had woken myself by crying out.

A friend wrote to me a couple of weeks ago. She, too, had been mistreated by a former lover. We had bonded over that, but in this message, she told me that she thought I was too angry, that my anger was hurting the cause.

I thought about writing back to her, What is your silence doing to help the cause?

I thought about how I could refute all of her points.

I spoke with friends who said to me, This woman does not have your best interests at heart.

When it came down to it, I no longer cared about her enough to respond.

I am getting better at caring less about certain people.

I recently reread a journal entry that I had written during my backpacking trip in August. In it, I had written: “River Guide taught me something important. River Guide taught me how not to fall in love with someone.”

Last night, at Reed’s soccer game, one of the dads asked me if I wanted a little orange. “I’ve already started it,” he said. He handed it to me, and he had peeled off the first chunk, so that I had a place to get a fingerfull in.

My father used to do that for me sometimes, but usually, my father would peel the entire orange for me. He ate an orange every night, and he always asked if I wanted one, and I always said no, but then the smell of the peel would hit me. “Maybe just a bite,” I would say. (Caleb affectionately nicknamed me, “Little Bite,” because I always wanted a little bite of everything.)

Here, take this one,” my father would say, as he handed me his orange. Then, he would peel himself a new one.

I like the sweet juice of an orange, but I don’t like the bitter peel. I don’t like having to work through bitter to get to sweetness.

Little oranges are easier to peel, and that soccer dad had already given me a good start. The juice of the orange was so sweet.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Do you want another one?” he asked.

“Actually, I would!” I said, then I laughed, embarrassed. I am usually polite, but I was greedy for more, so he handed me another one.

“You can’t eat just one orange,” he said.

Then, he said, again, “I started it for you.”

I noticed that his hands were empty. He had given his own orange to me.

I ate it anyway.

A couple of years ago, my best friend, Kelly M. roomed with me at a writer’s conference in Minneapolis. I met her at her train station. I reached over and grabbed the handle of her suitcase, started pulling it behind me. “What are you doing?” She asked.

Kelly M. and I had been roommates. She had been the oldest in her family, and I had been the youngest in mine, and we fit our roles. She was happy to do things for me, and I was happy to have her do them for me. She always would have peeled the entire orange for me. Still, there I was pulling her suitcase because nothing upends old patterns like being a single mother.

I peel every orange now. I pull every suitcase.

Caleb used to drive me to work every day and pick me up. I thought it was a kindness. It felt like a kindness.

I grew fearful of being away from him for too long. When he was angry, I feared that he wouldn’t pick me up. I grew fearful of driving on my own. Soon, he was driving me to the store. To doctor’s appointments. To everywhere.

He was always the one in the driver’s seat.

Reed said to me, “My dad has only treated his new wife like he treated you once or twice, and she told him that she doesn’t like it when he gets angry like that.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because I was in bed, and I heard him yelling at her, and I heard her say, ‘I don’t like it when you get angry like that,’ and then, I went in and asked them to be quiet, and they both asked how much I had heard.”

“How much did you hear?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes, “Oh, I heard everything,” he said.

“How do you know that your dad has only treated his new wife like that once or twice?” I asked.

“Because he told me so,” Reed said.

“When did he tell you that?” I asked.

“In the car, the next morning, after we had dropped her off at work,” Reed said.

“Why did you drop her off at work?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s just something they do,” Reed said. “Dad just drives her to work and picks her up.”

I called Kelly M. after Reed went to bed. I told her what Reed had told me, and then, I started to cry. I wasn’t crying because of my sadness that it was happening again. I wasn’t crying because of my fear for the new wife. I wasn’t even crying because of my fear for Reed (although that was a huge element).

I was crying because I felt guilty.

I was crying because, in the moment that Reed acknowledged to me that his father had treated his new wife in the same way that he had treated me, I felt relief.

Oh god, I am so sorry, but I felt relieved.

Not for her. Never for her.

But for that part of me that has continued to wonder if it really was my fault? It’s the same part that was triggered when Caleb’s friend wrote to me and asked me to identify my triggers that had caused the abuse. The same part that was triggered when another of Caleb’s friends said that he had heard that we beat up on each other. The same part that was triggered when I recently saw that someone who had claimed to support me had congratulated Caleb on his new wedding.

<Aside> You cannot support me and also support Caleb’s new marriage. In trying to do both, you are maintaining that the issue was mine, and not his. You are maintaining that he will be different for a different woman, as though he wasn’t always in control of how he treated me–as though I had brought it upon myself. <End Aside>

I felt relief, and then, a deep loosening of all of that pent-up anger. It was as though the anger just broke into pieces. It didn’t dissolve, but it became more easily compartmentalized.

And then, my concern for Reed took over. We are clearly hitting a point where he is not going to want to keep visiting his father. When that time happens, I will have his back. For now, I am letting him be his own guide. (Reed did tell me that, to his knowledge, Caleb hasn’t hit the new wife.)

Reed also said to me, “I thought that things would be different for [the new wife] until I heard the things that my dad was saying to her, and they were just like what he used to say to you.”

I have reached out to the new wife in the past (early on, before she was the wife). She wrote back to me, “You are sick.” I’ve sent her my phone number and private email address. She knows how to reach me, but at this point, she can’t be my concern. She has to be the concern of her own friends and family.

I have a beautiful and sensitive ten-year-old who is my concern.

I gave a reading for my department this past weekend. I was a little stressed about it. I spent the past year feeling alienated from my entire department because one person didn’t like me, and I know that’s irrational, but it’s also difficult to describe how insidious the effects of abuse are–how they begin to underly every communication, so that when one person inexplicably, and with no explanation, decides that they don’t like you and don’t want to have anything to do with you, it feels as though no one wants to have anything to do with you again, ever.

But my good friend, Shane, came to visit me this weekend, so I knew that I had my person at the reading, and then, my other people began to show up, and I realized that, during that period of alienation, when I was feeling so sad; instead of falling into despair, I had built a home from the wreckage.

My friend, Kirk, gave me an introduction that was so lovely that it made me tear up. In it, he described me as one of the “sunniest” people you will ever meet in Ellis Hall (our building on campus). I remembered how, in one of my darkest moments, my friend Brad had given me a bracelet that he had engraved with the word, “sunshine,” because he calls me “Kelly Sunshine.”

I thought of how I don’t really have to try to be sunny; it’s just my nature.

But I am darkness too.

I said all of that to Shane, who said, “If I were going to play the game ‘Match the Essayist to the Real Person,’ I would never guess you.”

That means I’ve succeeded. I don’t want to be the sad, dark person. But I get to write sad, dark essays.

All of it is true. The sadness, the sunniness, and the darkness.

In the mornings, while Shane was here, I would wake up, and he would say, “I think there’s still some coffee left.” There was always almost half of a pot.

I can’t remember the last time that someone made coffee for me.

One night, we sat in my Adirondack chairs. We looked at the full moon. We talked about our futures. We talked about our exes. We talked about the ways in which we’ve been hurt, and the ways in which we’ve been healed.

About the new wife, I told Shane, “The words ‘I don’t like it when you get angry like that ‘ indicate a pattern. That’s not a ‘once or twice’ kind of thing.” I paused, then, “She can’t call her mother and vent. She can’t call her best friend and vent. They have all, undoubtedly, heard about Caleb already. What would they think if she admitted that to them?”

She is even more isolated than I was.

And Shane was there to listen, then to make coffee in the morning. The coffee was bitter at first, then sweet. I thought about Kirk and Brad calling me “sunny.” I thought about my other friend saying that I was too angry.

I am both; I am the bitter peel and the sweet juice.

You will not find the sweetness in me unless you’re willing to get through the peel.

Here, I started it for you.