Tag Archives: writing

A new year; the same me?

It’s January 2011, and it’s been over two months since I’ve updated my blog. Sometimes I’ve forgotten about it, sometimes I haven’t had anything to say, and sometimes I’ve wanted to say things and not known how to do it. But the only way to get back to it is to get back to it, so, well, I’m back.

A new year often inspires people to be reflective of where they’ve been and where they are going and I am no exception. As I write this, much is the same as the last time I wrote. I am still unemployed, I am still living with my parents, I am still getting a divorce – hell, just like previous years, I didn’t do NaNoWriMo.

I feel like these are facts that I should be upset or discouraged by, but somehow, even though they look bad written out, living them feels better than I’d expected.

I have had a long history of self-flagellation, of fighting myself, of wanting to be different, to be better, and my definition of better always managed to be something I never consciously chose; it just lurked in my head, waiting to chastise me for not living up to the ideal. Whether it was my body, my career, my relationships, even my hobbies – you name it, and I never thought I was good enough. And isn’t this the story of every striver, every Lisa Simpson-esque overachiever? My inclination has also been to beat myself up for not even having original angst, a self-defeating cycle if ever I’ve seen one.

This mindset has resulted in me being extremely risk-adverse. I don’t know if I ever articulated it as such, but I would think things like, oh, I would rather not get my hopes up and then be disappointed, better to just not try. I can’t even really think of any examples of things that I wanted and didn’t go after; more, I just didn’t aim for very much. The risk of rejection or failure absolutely paralyzed me.

And so here I am unemployed, the longest stretch of unemployment I’ve ever had, and as much as I am aching to get back to work, I have to say that it hasn’t been an entirely negative experience. For one thing, it has forced me to experience rejection, and realize that I can handle it. This seems so obvious, but previously, I have always gone on an interview and been immediately offered the job – I am almost 37 years old and this is the first time I’ve gone on job interviews where I wasn’t hired! I know that I’ve been fortunate in the past, but those easy experiences kept me sheltered. The thought of not being chosen always seemed like it would be such a crushing blow, such a referendum on my worthiness as a human. And yet, now that I’ve been on three interviews where I haven’t been hired, I’ve been disappointed, but it is much more manageable than I’d expected. I feel much more realistic now.

What has also been helpful has been contemplating exactly what kind of work I want to do. Again, the over-achiever syndrome – I have always had these vague feelings that I should be doing something amazing, something incredible, get a Ph.D., become a CEO, a bestselling author, something that will publicly affirm my worth. Yet this is not who I am! The more job descriptions I look at, the more I realize that I am not a leader, an innovator, a star – and finally, I feel okay with that. I am looking at jobs with titles like Program Associate or Project Administrator and realizing that that’s the kind of work I like. I like taking people’s ideas and executing them, thinking of the little details and figuring out the snags and coming up with other ways to get around them. I like working with people, and helping explain things, and providing good service. I like working 40 hours a week and not bringing my work home with me. Part of me thinks, I have a masters degree and a 4.0 GPA from an Ivy League university, shouldn’t I be aiming higher? But feeling like I should be aiming higher, according to some amorphous external standard, hasn’t made me happy, at all. And the more I accept that what I like is what I like, the more at peace I feel.

This is something I have been experiencing in my personal life as well. (And just a warning – I am going to talk about my sex life. Not very explicitly, but if that will weird you out because you know me, you might want to stop reading here. It gets really personal.)

When Carl and I decided to separate, we also agreed that we would be free to see other people. Initially, the idea seemed very academic and theoretical to me, but after about a month apart I got curious, and I started exploring aspects of my sexuality that I had fantasized about for decades, but had never dared to act upon except in the smallest of ways. (Again, no details, but let’s just say it’s kinky stuff.) I had often felt conflicted about my desires, felt like they were a representation of my low self-esteem, perhaps a way to feel bad about myself, and I often did feel guilty or ashamed or dirty for the things I wanted.

Yet I chanced upon meeting someone whose desires very closely matched mine, and took a huge risk in making my fantasies a reality. Not only was it better than I expected, but over the past few months he has been acting as a mentor of sorts, and under his guidance I have done things I never imagined I would, and it has been simply incredible. Not just physically; it has been mentally and emotionally liberating in a way I absolutely did not expect. The guilt and shame I’d felt for so long about what I wanted has melted, dissolved – I did these things, and the world did not end! I am still the same person I ever was! Again, I like what I like, and I can’t believe I fought against it for so long.

And in keeping with this blog’s theme, I have to say that even as positive as my body image has been in the past, being sexual in this way has been an entirely new way to experience my body, experience myself in my body. I have discarded self-consciousness I didn’t even realize I still had. I am not just comfortable in my skin; I revel in being looked at, at being seen. I move and touch and receive touch seamlessly; my body and my skin and my mind act in absolute concert. I didn’t even imagine this was possible!

It has been somewhat hard to know how to integrate this into my life; for one, it is so heady and overwhelming that I fear that for the people I do talk to about it, I’m pretty much shouting my bliss from the rooftops. And yet I have also felt unable to talk about it in other ways – some of the things I have done are so extreme and out of the ordinary that to say them out loud sounds almost like abuse, and in the beginning, I worried that perhaps I was fooling myself. I have a long history of being in bad situations that I could find any way possible to justify to myself, to convince myself that everything was fine when it really wasn’t. And I’m not cocky enough to say 100% that this isn’t the case now, but I have been making it a point to check in with myself after each time and see how I’m feeling, and goddamn if I don’t feel peaceful and blissful and just plain happy each time. And in a way, having experienced abuse in the past has been a very useful yardstick – I know what abuse feels like, and this doesn’t feel at all like that. If that changes, I’ll deal with it, but for now, it feels amazing to trust myself like this.

So. Wow. This is a lot of navel gazing, and a lot more disjointed and less cohesive than I generally aim for when I write, but so be it. My goal in writing for an audience instead of a private diary is not just to share my experiences in the hopes that they’ll resonate with someone reading, but to keep myself honest, bring things into the light of day. It feels so good to accept who I am and what I like and what I want – my initial inclination is to bemoan how long it took me to make such simple strides, but you know what? I’m just going to enjoy it.

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Going home again

In exactly one week, I will be living with my parents for the first time in 13 years.  It is meant to be a temporary situation – a stop-gap place to stay while I look for a job and then get an apartment of my own – and I am incredibly grateful that they are offering me a safety net that I don’t take for granted.  Yet, living with my parents again is bound to be a challenge.

My parents are the primary reason that this blog is pseudonymous.  I wanted to feel free to write about lingering issues from my childhood that hold me back, and I don’t want them to find this blog and feel hurt by what I say.  (My mother is not very internet savvy, and my father does not frequent the same spaces online that I do, but I am wary of the magic of Google.)  On the other hand, I have really let that fear of what my parents think hold me back for quite a long time.

My mother taught me to read at a very young age – I was able to read independently by the age of 3, and was reading Nancy Drew books when I was 5.  My verbal skills spilled over into writing, and my family and my teachers always praised my writing, telling me that I should be an author one day.  My parents used to say all the time that they thought I should write a book about “our crazy family,” although it was always understood that they meant the extended family – our nuclear family was positioned as the lone island of reason in a sea of intergenerational dysfunction.

When I was in high school, I was incredibly lucky to attend a 5-week creative writing program at a local university.  It was the first time I had ever spent the night somewhere that wasn’t a friend’s house or my grandmother’s, and 5 weeks was such long time away from home at that point in my life, just a year before college.  It was exciting and heady and overwhelming at the same time.  I had never experienced independence from my family before, and while I had a few good individual friendships, I got to quickly bond with a group of friends in an intense way that was a wonderful novelty for lonely loser Claudia.

The writing was harder.  I have an unfortunate competitive streak, borne of deep insecurity, and it was intimidating to be surrounded by people my own age who were spectacular budding writers, flowing forth with words and ideas and creativity in an unbounded river.  I was much more tentative, hesitant, stuck.  But I plugged away at my work and charged my batteries with the electric energy of all the creation around me.

A few weeks into the program was Family Day, where parents and other family members came to visit the campus and the students displayed their works of art, their photography, their concerts and plays and in my case, readings.  I had a number of pieces in draft form, but most were not polished enough for public consumption, so I chose to read an innocuous little poem that I’d written about a day with my best friend Nathaniel (a wonderful man who has been one of my dearest friends for 25 years and is still going strong), which was the same poem I had chosen to publish in the literary magazine as well.  I was scared and nervous but the reading went fine.

Yet as my parents were leaving for the day, they berated me for humiliating them and wasting their money on the program.  That I had the gall to choose a poem about my friend.  That I was the only person who had the same piece for the literary magazine and the reading.  That it wasn’t good enough and I wasn’t good enough.  I am still not sure why such a small thing set them off in such a large way, but my mother told me that she was glad that her own mother was unable to attend Family Day, because she would have been ashamed to have her there.

They left and I was heartbroken and completely bewildered.  My lovely group of friends comforted me with words of support and a full-on pile of hugs and hair stroking and as I look back I think this was one of my first steps of detaching from my family, as unwelcome the need to was at the time.

When the five weeks of the program ended, I came back with my portfolio and a written assessment of my work and progress.   The feedback was honest and helpful and indicated that at the time, I had promise and worked hard but my work was not at the range of the very best.  I was devastated not by the feedback but my father’s reaction.  He was angry, ragingly angry, that I had wasted his money that we couldn’t spare by not coming back with straight A’s and I don’t know, a publishable novel?  He was angry that I wrote letters to my friends from camp on the computer in the basement instead of watching TV with the family.  He was angry that I spent so much time talking to Nathaniel, and threatened that if Nathaniel went to the same college I did, he wouldn’t pay for tuition.

Ironically, after I returned from camp, my writer’s block loosened and stories and poems poured out of me the way they hadn’t at camp.  I submitted my revised portfolio along with my college application and received a merit scholarship that paid half of my tuition for all four years.

Yet after that, I stopped writing – the words and the desire to use them dried up.

I don’t blame my parents directly for it, but here I am, talking about it still, 15 years after the fact.  So obviously it’s still with me.  The knowledge that sharing my writing with my parents isn’t safe, the disappointment in how much they failed me in that respect.

I understand it better with time.  My family is so tight-knit as to be unhealthily enmeshed, and I’m the oldest child, the oldest grandchild, the oldest great-grandchild on all sides.  The first member of my family to go to college.  The precocious straight-A student.  I carried the weight of innumerable expectations on my head, and my parents sacrificed a great deal so my brother and I could have so many things that they weren’t able to.  My struggling baby steps at independence and self-expression must have been very emotional and volatile and stressful to the family system in a way none of us were prepared for.  And my parents didn’t handle it very well.

I’m not a parent myself, so I can only guess at how difficult the job must be.  But I think about how easily overwhelmed with emotion I can get, how hard it is for me to process it healthily, how quick I am to lash out in words in anger and frustration within my marriage, only to regret it later.  Add that to the constancy that parenting requires, the 24/7 nature of the job, and the responsibility of being the grown-up, the role model.  I don’t know that I would handle it very well myself, and I can empathize with my parents in a way I couldn’t when I was younger.

Yet it is still important for me to declare its impact on me, the fact that I was ill-served by their reaction, no matter how understandable their mistakes were.  I am writing about it because I want to be done with it and move on, and unequivocally stating that this was not right seems to be the way to do it.  (My friends who have heard this story of woe multiple times will likely be happy if it works!)

I think of the things that I write about here and shield from my parents’ eyes and I have avoided naming them outright for decades because deep down, I was afraid they were right.  I am afraid to discuss issues of growing up and creativity and food and eating and weight because I am afraid that they will say, “You know, we were right.  You were a hideous child and a terrible writer and we were right to shame you for your body and force you to diet and march up and down the driveway for exercise and we only regret that you grew up to be even uglier, disgusting, and have disappointed us in every way possible.”

It’s rather liberating to write that out – I had to laugh, because our relationship has changed enough over the years that I know that they wouldn’t say that.  And I don’t even think they think it.  But what I have finally come to recognize is that as much as it would hurt, I could live with it even if they did think every single one of those things or worse.  Because I don’t believe those words anymore.  I’m just Claudia, living my life the best I know how, and I don’t have anything to be ashamed of.  So while I can finally admit that my parents fucked up without making excuses for them, I can forgive them and love them still.  And I write.

(Just an FYI – I’ll be offline until Thursday, so any comments that need moderation will be stuck until then.)

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Happy returns

One of the reasons I started writing again is that my husband and I are going through a separation of sorts.  It is hard to know what to call it, how to view it.

I met Carl almost seven years ago, a year after I had ended a physically and emotionally abusive relationship that left me reeling.  I wrote like a fiend in that year I was single, processing my pain, trying to fit things in perspective, purging all the things I didn’t have the safety to feel or acknowledge when I was with my ex.  It was such an intense time, a roller coaster of emotions that had been repressed for so long, and so heady with self-discovery.  Right before I met Carl I had gone to northern California by myself, for my first trip I ever took, planned, and paid for by myself.  My mother had fretted about me going alone to “such a big city!”  “Mom, I live in New York City – I’m in a gigantic city every day.”  “And I worry about you every day!” she cried.  I come from a very anxious family, and don’t exclude myself from that description, but the trip to California was amazing, everything I had hoped for and more, with no anxiety at all.  When I came back to New York, I felt on top of the world.

(The picture at the top of the blog is me stepping in the Pacific Ocean for the very first time.)

Perhaps a month after I returned, Carl replied to an ad I had put on a dating site and since forgotten about, as it hadn’t gotten a single response in months.  He wrote me short, sweet emails that were curious and respectful and well-composed (all rarities in internet dating!), and although our first encounters were a bit awkward, I soon fell in love with his intelligence and calm nature and dry sense of humor and the knowledge that I would be safe with him.

Not long after, I stopped writing.

One reason is that I didn’t feel comfortable writing about Carl online, since he is a much more private person than I am, and I wanted to respect that.  (I still do, and am trying to keep the right balance here.)

I also thought to myself, I am so happy – I can only write when I am miserable. What could I possible have to say now?  So I stopped with the daily checking-in that writing provided me, even in my own personal journal.

Last year Carl decided to apply for a fellowship to do research overseas, for a two year period.  The application process was grueling in so many ways, but particularly because we had absolutely no idea how to talk to each other about it, about making such a drastic change in our lives.  He wanted the work and the change and the adventure so much that he couldn’t hear how dreadful the idea of being a trailing spouse was to me, and I was so scared of the change that I didn’t listen to how important the fellowship was to him.

So he sent the application in, and I figured that statistics were on my side – I would just assume he wouldn’t get it, and shoved it off to a dusty corner in the back of my mind.

Well, I am writing this post in Europe.  So much for denial.

We have been here for a year, and it has been an incredible strain in so many ways. After much fighting and depression and sadness, we mutually agreed that it made sense for me to go back to New York, while he stays to finish his work, and we will re-assess our relationship when he is done.  I write this not to air our dirty laundry, but because of what has changed in my life since committing to going back.

Like I said, I haven’t written seriously in years.  I didn’t even feel like writing; I felt numb.  But suddenly words are just pouring out of me, like water out of a collapsed dam.  I can’t sleep at night, with all of the words racing in my head.  I felt fuzzy and dulled for at least a year and now I have this calm, razor focus.

It might seem that I’m suggesting that Carl is somehow responsible for my writing slump, seeing that I stopped writing when we met and am only starting again now that we’ll be living apart.  But really, it has so little to do with him, and so much to do with me.

I wanted safety so bad after my ex that I sacrificed a part of my life that I found useful and fulfilling because I didn’t want to rock the boat.  Because it might make Carl uncomfortable.  Or because it might force me to realize my dissatisfaction with various parts of my life.  Because if I grew or changed, I might lose my safe haven.  Yet this stubborn denial of myself turned a safe haven into a small, suffocating box – for both of us.

(Pretty clichéd, right?  But it’s a cliché for a reason.  I know I’m not the only woman to fall in this trap.)

It’s only now that I was able to say hey, I really need to go back, I really want this, that things started to change. So my goal here is to exercise my rusty voice, aiming for clear, compassionate honesty.  Let’s see how it goes.

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