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 Expectations

Someone posted this video on Facebook today, and it really affected me. It is a Ted talk by Barry Schwartz titled “The Paradox of Choice.” The basic premise is that the secret to happiness is low expectations, and this is something that has been true for me in the past few months.

As I wrote in my previous post, my life bottomed out after I left my husband. In truth, it bottomed out before I left my husband, which was why I left him. Still, while we were married, I had a fair amount of material comforts. We weren’t well off, but we owned a home and two cars. We had a kitchen we remodeled ourselves. We could afford to occasionally take vacations.

After I left him, things weren’t so comfortable. My son and I moved in with my sweet friend Rebecca and her partner, Evan, for a month, and we each slept on twin mattresses on the floor. I was injured and in a lot of physical pain. I was also in emotional pain, and I was in shock. I actually have holes in my memory from much of that time period. I couldn’t take any time off work, and so despite my physical and emotional limitations, I had to continue being responsible for the education of 88 students. I was adjusting to being a single mom. My husband, for all of his flaws, had been a fairly active father, and it was difficult to have to do everything myself. My son had snow days and 2-hour-delays, and I had to find people to watch him, so I could go to work. This caused me a great deal of stress. I had to unpack my house, put things away, and figure out how to fix problems in my 80-year-old house that I had never had to fix before. I had no idea what was going to happen in my future. Although I worked well over full-time hours, I was an adjunct instructor, so I was considered a part-time employee with no health insurance or benefits. I didn’t know if I would even have work in the summer or in the upcoming semester. I had to find a lawyer and figure out how to file for divorce without losing my healthcare. I could go on and on. It was just a terrible time.

It culminated in me calling my mother from the side of the freeway sobbing about 4 months after I had separated from my husband. After everything I had been through, the thing that nearly broke me was when my husband and I met to trade off our son in a nearby town, and I was hurt by the way his father had looked at me. It seems so silly in comparison to the other struggles that I had in my life at that time, but the hardest thing to go through was the grief of losing my husband and his family, or at least the dream of what I had thought we would have together. And that moment, by the side of the freeway, was the moment that I realized we were never going to have any of that. We were never going to have anything together again,  and I moved on then from the stage of denial and isolation.

When I look back at my life, I can identify that as the lowest point in my life, but honestly, things did start to look up after that. It’s a such a cliché, but they did. All of those problems I described previously, I resolved. I figured out how to get into a routine where I could manage the demands of being a single mom. I figured out what I was going to do for work. I figured out where I would get my health insurance. I figured out how to afford a lawyer (I found a lawyer who represented me for free). I won custody of my son. I sacrificed on certain financial matters with my husband, so that he wouldn’t drag our divorce into a long battle. I moved to another state.

I moved on with my life. And I did it with the help of my parents and many friends, but I did it without him. Part of our dynamic, and why I stayed long after he started abusing me, was because he said that I needed him, that I couldn’t do things on my own, and I believed him. But I have learned now that I can do pretty much anything I put my mind to.

So, now, I live without a lot of material comforts. My son and I live in a tiny apartment. My teaching fellowship doesn’t stretch far enough for vacations or luxuries. I don’t have a washer and dryer or a dishwasher. None of that matters though. I am still much happier than I was a year ago.

I agree with Schwartz’s premise. Even though my life now is very stressful–I don’t think anyone would say that being a single mother and PhD student is easy–having low expectations has helped me manage that stress. Having low expectations doesn’t mean that I’ve settled. I don’t feel that way at all. Honestly, I am living my dream right now, and it is something I never could have done while I was still married, but I have lowered my expectations, and lowering my expectations has freed me.