On Nature Writing and Divorce

This blog is new, but my struggle is not. Last summer was a pivotal moment for my healing, and as I embark on this summer–a happier, more confident, more independent person–I want to share with my new readers how I felt last year on May 31. I wrote this last year at that time while I was working in a guard station on the outskirts of the Frank Church Wilderness. I wasn’t acknowledging publicly that I had been abused, but the sentiment is the same, nonetheless.

Working near the wilderness again has me thinking about nature writing. As my graduate school buddies probably remember, I set out at one point to write an “anti-nature” essay. I was tired of the genre of nature writing and the idea of the redemptive power of nature. That essay idea came from a single sentence that occurred to me when I was washing dishes. “This is a story about a woman who went into the wilderness and came out unchanged,” and the essay was later published in the Mid-American Review, then at The Hawaii Pacific Review

I’ve always loved nature. I was raised in Idaho by a forester who had me backpacking into remote wilderness areas when I was just a little kid, so I’ve had more exposure than most, but for some reason, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the genre of nature writing. It’s just a bit too “on the nose” for me. I’ve seen people saved by nature, for sure, but I’ve also seen people who live in the woods in an attempt to escape their own demons. Many of these people sink into alcoholism and depression. Nature doesn’t judge those illnesses, but it also doesn’t heal them.

The reason I’m thinking about this issue again is because, right now, living in nature is giving me just what I need. I’m currently going through a divorce, and it’s not amicable, and it’s not easy. I’m working very hard to be enlightened about the whole thing and not feel any ill-will towards my soon-to-be-ex-husband, but the truth is that I do feel a lot of ill-will towards him, and that upsets me because I loved him once, and we made a child together, and I want to feel that love can survive divorce, even if the relationship can’t. But, when I’m in town, and I have communication with him, it’s frequently upsetting. I spend a lot of time crying. I spend a lot of time ruminating. I refresh my email and check my phone, and frankly, it makes me very miserable. But, being out here with no phone and a satellite internet connection that is only slightly better than dial-up forces me to slow down. Whatever issue may arise–if my husband threatens to hire a lawyer who will “pull every dirty trick in the book” or, if he withdraws money from my bank account without telling me, or if he sends me a funny picture of my son that brings all of that grief back out of the recesses of my chest–none of it matters out here. Because I can’t deal with it until I’m back in town, so I might as well not worry about it in this moment. And this is a skill that I probably should have learned long ago. I need to let go of what I can’t control.

I’m thinking of the redemptive nature essay in a different way now because, in many ways, I am feeling healed a bit more each day. Of course, a lot of that also has to do with having a support system in place. I moved to West Virginia for my husband, which meant that, when we split, my family and closest friends were across the country. In the past six months, I’ve spent more time on the phone than ever, and my friends have picked up each and every time I’ve called, but it’s not the same as a hug. It’s not the same as seeing them. The other night, I was having a mini-breakdown, and my mom came downstairs. She listened to me, and she tucked me into bed like a child. For a moment, I thought she was going to crawl in with me. Having her there made me realize what I had been missing. For the past six months, until my husband took our son for part of the summer, I’ve been raising our 7-year-old on my own, and I’ve had to be strong for him. And, now, it feels good to have someone be strong for me. The next day, when I was driving out to my guard station on the edge of the Frank Church Wilderness, I felt better. I felt as though I was leaving my troubles behind me for a few days.

Now, I kind of want to write a redemptive nature essay–a response to the first one–except that I still struggle with the same issues with the genre. Too many writers–nature or otherwise–write as though they have it all figured out. Often, I’m sure that they do have it figured out for themselves. But that doesn’t mean they have it figured out for others. People have similarities, but our life circumstances are different, and the same solutions don’t apply to everyone.

On Facebook a while back, a friend posted something asking people to comment on what makes a marriage survive or work. Many people responded that “failure is not an option.” That comment thread frustrated me; I felt it was self-righteous. Failure absolutely is an option for everyone in a marriage or relationship, no matter how confident someone might feel about their chances. Marriages change, and people change. Sometimes, marriages are doomed from the start. When I married my husband, he already had many secrets that he was keeping from me. I didn’t find them out until after we had been married for a couple of years and had a child. By then, as is usually the case, I was more upset by the dishonesty than the events that had occurred. And someone who is dishonest early on will probably not be honest later on. Looking back, of course, I can see the red flags, and that frustrates me now. I’m frustrated that I blinded myself to those red flags because I wanted so badly for the relationship to work. I wanted to not be lonely, and that made me impulsive. 

When I see my friends embarking on relationships with red flags, I want to shout “Don’t do it. Those flags are there for a reason.” But I don’t. Because their relationship might survive. The end of my own relationship doesn’t, in any way, make me an expert on other peoples’ relationships. I’m frequently amazed and surprised by which relationships survive and which end.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay where I compared the destruction of a Demolition Derby to the destruction in interpersonal relationships. My initial ending was along the lines of “My relationship is strong. We’ll survive the destruction.” A workshopper and friend, Molly, told me that she thought that ending was too confident–not realistic–and she was right. I changed the ending to make it more ambiguous; instead, I compared myself to a woman driving a derby car. She was just trying to make it to the end of the round. The new ending turned out to be far more honest, and far more accurate. The essay itself was born out of my uncertainty about my relationship. I was already deeply unhappy in my marriage but unwilling to end it. I thought, somehow, that if we weathered the tough times, there would be a reward at the end, but there was no reward. Times kept getting tougher, and in the end, they were so tough that I had to leave. One of my many regrets now is that I didn’t leave sooner, but I did what I was able to do with the resources and knowledge I had at the time. I made it to the end of the round, then I chose not to participate in the next round. I chose not to let the destruction rule my life anymore. 

Being in the woods has given me the opportunity to see much of this. In many ways, I feel happier than I have in a long while, but I still don’t feel wise. I feel flawed, uncertain, as if I’m on a road, but I don’t know where it is taking me, and I can’t see myself ever realistically writing a redemptive essay. I don’t know what’s around the bend. I don’t know if what is waiting for me will be better or worse, but that’s okay.
I tell myself that’s okay.
My friend, Ab, has some comforting thoughts on the subject of uncertainty, and when I confided in him how scared I was of my future, he wrote this back to me:
“Uncertainty is grace. We can’t know the answer to so many questions and we can’t know what’s going to happen, and even though that leaves us open for a lot of strife and pain, it also leaves us open to beauty and surprise and wonder. Nothing is set, nothing is known, and that means we can always change.”

Nature, like everything else, is uncertain. And nature is grace. There is power in that. I believe this. But it’s up to the individual to find the redemption. Nature doesn’t simply bestow it.

On Jumping

In one of my previous posts, I promised to write at some point about the tricky dynamics of love and abuse, but in all truth, I haven’t wanted to revisit those feelings. I haven’t wanted to explore what I loved about him. I don’t love him anymore. At least, I don’t think I do. I don’t know if that kind of love ever goes away. I was always someone who was very invested in romantic notions of love. When I was young, I thought that I would only love once. It never occurred to me that I would love (and have my heart broken) then love (and break someone else’s heart) then love (and have my heart broken again) in a pattern that would begin to feel endless. When I married my husband, I thought I was breaking that pattern. I thought that I would never have to live through heartbreak again.

I recently published this essay It Will Look Like A Sunset at Guernica Magazine. The essay has been read and shared many times. Truthfully, the response has been quite overwhelming. So many women have reached out to me, to share their own stories with me, and to thank me for putting a voice to their stories. I have felt quite cared for in the past few weeks, and I have not felt alone in my struggle for one of the first times, but it is difficult to realize how not alone I am. I have seen my blog’s views grow by the thousands, and it breaks my heart to think that many of those views are coming from women who have been battered, or who are currently being battered. I wish there was some way for me to reach through the Internet and hug every one of them. And to protect them. More than anything, I wish I could protect them.

A discussion about my essay was started at the website MetaFilter. As I read through the hundreds of comments. I was startled by how familiar these comments were, how so many of these women struggled with the same feelings of love and ambivalence about leaving their abusive partners. One woman wrote quite beautifully:

Her writing is so lucid that many of us (myself included) hear our own voices in hers. To me, it’s not only an effort to share what happened (maybe perhaps someone will see warning signs they didn’t recognize before) but also…to not be alone. Because when the abuse starts, we are alone with a monster–even in public, we are alone. So maybe to discover “it’s not just me” and think “you too?” the crushing weight of solitude is lifted a little, and we can figure out how to escape from under the rock someone dropped on us.

She’s right. This is why I have been writing so much about what happened. I have been writing to escape that feeling of solitude. Of isolation. Of living a lie. Of living a life where, even in public, I feel alone because no one really knows, or could possibly understand (I think), what I am experiencing.

Another writer articulated very well how hard it is to leave:

It’s so hard to move on, because all that re-wiring in your brain just stays with you. Not to mention, I’ve always thought that abusers had to be extra talented at romancing. They have to get you to stay somehow, so of course the highs are higher than with anyone else. You HAVE to have the most amazing time and the most amazing memories with them, because that’s what will get you to stay with them the other times. I know I didn’t escape because I’m special or because my Nope Cortex is special.

I know I escaped because I was lucky. There was a tiny little window of time where the stars aligned and I jumped through that window so hard. The aftermath is harder sometimes. The people who can’t understand why you wouldn’t tell them it was happening, because of course they would have been there for you! And now I just think about the friends that I know know know are in abusive situations, and I can’t help. I can’t. All I can do is keep being a steady friend. Ready for them when they walk away. I wish with everything I have that I could help them get out sooner, but the magic window will appear when it does. It can’t be hurried.

She, too, is right. My magic window appeared when the police knocked on the door. I wasn’t ready yet to jump, and I didn’t jump for two more days. I spent two days helping my ex-husband find a lawyer, trying to figure out how we were going to get his charges dismissed, and hoping that our marriage would change. He was arrested on Monday. On Wednesday, I lied and told him I was going to grade papers, but my mom had made me promise I would go to the domestic violence shelter. I went and sat with a counselor, and she showed me the cycle of violence. It broke through the clutter. I realized, for the first time, that we were in a pattern that would not change. I went home and my husband had whiled away the morning hours looking at porn while I had tried to figure out our future. I remember looking at him and a chill went through my body. It was like my blood was turning thick into ice. My fingers tingled. I knew I needed to leave.

And I jumped. I jumped so hard.

I spoke with a friend recently who is in an unhealthy relationship. That moment seems to have arrived for her. Her window has opened, but she doesn’t want that window to be open. No one ever wants that window to be open. We want to keep loving the person we once loved. We don’t want to jump. The landing is hard. It is so hard. It is not an easy jump where we magically grow wings and fly. Sometimes, parts of us are broken in the process, but we still need to jump.

Women who have been abused are not very good at self-care. We are not great at recognizing what our needs are, but we can still love other people and recognize what’s good for them. I knew that she couldn’t hear me if I said “You need to jump. You will be glad if you jump.” So, instead, I said, “Aren’t you glad I jumped?”

And to you, dear readers, if you have come by this blog because it’s time for you to jump, then I say this to you.

Aren’t you glad I jumped?

On Hope

In this blog, I have focused primarily on my struggle. Recovering from domestic violence has been a struggle unlike any other that I have ever encountered. It is a daily struggle to combat the memories, to fight against his voice that remains in my head, to tell myself that I am good enough, worthy enough, strong enough, lovable enough, that I am “enough” of anything.
I haven’t spoken much about where I am today because there are many days where I feel that I am not far enough along on this journey to offer any hope or consolation about what this journey has to offer, but in the past week, I had an experience that put things into perspective, and I have realized that I am enough.
I may not be enough for him, but I am enough for myself.
Last week, I went to Seattle for a writer’s conference. Last year, at this time, I went to the same conference in Boston. When I look back at this past year, I can’t necessarily pinpoint how I felt at a certain time. I can’t say “I felt this way in February,” but this major event gave me the opportunity to compare. And I can say, in all honesty, that last year at the conference, I felt much, much worse than I felt this year.
When I saw my roommates this year—who I hadn’t seen since last year—they both commented on how much better I look, how much happier I seem, how much stronger I seem. And I am. I am all of those things.
I am happy. And strong. And better.
Last year, at this time, I felt hopeless. Like most people, I have struggled with sadness in my lifetime, but I had never felt hopeless before that point. Hopelessness is terrible. If I hadn’t had my son who I needed to be strong for, I don’t know if I would have survived that feeling. I kept waking up in the mornings for him, but I would have preferred to stay in bed, to never wake up again.
I remember my counselor asking me what were the things that I enjoyed doing? I paused. “I enjoy writing,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “Writing is your work,” she said. “What are the things you like to do for fun?” I couldn’t answer that question. I didn’t know how to answer that question. There was nothing in my life that I thought was enjoyable.
But, in the past week, I had so much fun. I went to Seattle. (I find travel enjoyable.) I presented as part of a panel on publishing nonfiction. (I find my career enjoyable.) I spent time with my friends. (I find my friends enjoyable.) I went shopping. (I find shopping enjoyable.) I went to good restaurants. (I find dining out enjoyable.) I went to Pike Place Market. (I find sightseeing enjoyable.) I returned home and spent time with my parents and my son. (I find my family enjoyable.) I went for a walk on campus with my parents. (I find walking enjoyable.) I cuddled up on the couch with my son. (I find cuddling with my son enjoyable.)
My life is enjoyable.
When I look back at this time last year, things were so different. At this conference, I inevitably run into friends of my ex-husband. Last year, at this time, I was still covering for him, still hiding what had happened when I ran into his friends. This year, again, I saw some friends of his. It was awkward. I don’t know where those friends stand on this issue, and I have realized that I have no desire to be friends with people who are willing to prop up an abuser. If you are still friends with my abuser, then I don’t want to be friends with you. It is that simple. Still, even though it was awkward, I could handle it. I have lots of friends. I don’t need any more. I don’t need to grieve the loss of people who make excuses for abusive men because my life is full of people who don’t. My life is full of amazing, loving people who are willing to take a stand, and I feel blessed every day with those people. 
In the past year, I have reached out to my friends when I have felt hopeless. I have reconnected with people who I had lost touch with, and I have sought out new friendships. I have not dated. I have chosen to place myself first, and that choice has freed me from my hopelessness.
When I look at the life my ex-husband is living, it feels almost ungenerous to compare our situations. He is living a solitary, lonely existence. He, too, wants to be a writer, but like most abusive men, he struggles with a compulsion for violent pornography. I hesitate to use the word addiction because the jury is still out on whether pornography can be an addiction, but if looking at violent porn for twelve hours at a time constitutes an addiction, then the word addiction might be more appropriate.  I don’t know; I just know that he has been unable to write for a long time because he can’t spend time on the computer without getting distracted. I feel compassion for him about this. I genuinely feel that it is out of his control. When we were married, I didn’t feel compassion about this subject. I felt betrayed and angry, but moving into a state of compassion has freed me from that bitterness, and bitterness feels, well….yucky. I no longer feel yucky in that way.

 I also know that, for a long time, I held myself back from my own writing because I was concerned about hurting him. I didn’t want to have success because that would affect his self-esteem, and he was my priority. He once said that his number one resentment was “other people’s success,” and I felt that acutely. I chose not to be a success because I didn’t want to be another source of his resentment. But now, I can be a success. I can write anything I want to write. I can publish anywhere I want to publish. I can be anything I want to be. And I find that enjoyable.