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This Is How It Works

We don’t exactly like our neighbor. She doesn’t exactly like us. She’ll only ever talk to my dog and my mother-in-law. She ignores us when we wave at her as we walk or drive by. She likes to burn lawn debris when I’m outside with the kids and blow the leaves out of her driveway at 9 at night.

But she told my mother-in-law while she was out with my kids today that her husband had just passed away two days ago. She doesn’t have any family to speak of, and I find it hard to believe that she has many friends. So I have a condolence apple-cranberry cobbler in the oven to take over to her this evening.

I do this because this is The South and that’s how it works down here. We don’t let the grieving go hungry. Ever. But more than that, it’s the right thing to do, the nice thing to do.

Because you don’t have to like somebody to be nice to them. Because it’s especially important to be nice to somebody when you don’t like them. Just let that one marinate for a little while.


Then, Suddenly, Crohn’s Disease

I was planning on making the boys’ costumes for Halloween today. I even started making them. And then, suddenly, Crohn’s Disease.

Some days, I hate my body. Not in the way that a typical 28-year-old woman might hate her body for not being slim or supple enough, but in the sullen, resentful way that a person might hate another for some sort of betrayal. Because it’s not easy or fun to live in a body that you can’t trust to do what it’s supposed to do.

Before we get any further today, I’d like to direct your attention here. That link will take you to the Spoon Theory, which is probably the closest to the unified field theory that the chronically ill have. If you have the time, read it, because it’s excellent, and then skip to the next paragraph here. If you don’t, I’ll briefly summarize. Suppose you have a certain number of spoons. For our purposes, and for the sake of continuity, we’ll say you have 12. 12 spoons. Everything you do in any given day costs you X spoons. And I mean everything. Showering, brushing your teeth, eating meals, cooking, cleaning, even sitting at a computer working, these each cost spoons. Simple things like getting dressed only cost one spoon. More complicated tasks like cleaning your bathroom can cost multiple spoons, depending on how thorough a job you do of it. It is almost impossible to gain more spoons over the course of the day. Some days you start out with more spoons than others, but you can’t just assume that you’re going to have more spoons tomorrow because you probably won’t. Don’t have a spoon to spare for washing dishes? Too damn bad. Dishes don’t get washed.

The point of the Spoon Theory is that most people, healthy people, have no idea what it is to have a such a low limit to the number of spoons they have. Most healthy people have spoons to spare.

The Spoon Theory author has Lupus and as such uses it as the example, but this theory applies to pretty much everyone with chronic conditions. Me? I have Crohn’s Disease which effects the digestive tract. Not only do I have to mind all the things that I do, but all the things that I eat. It all costs me something. Maybe that salad is “better” for me than the cheeseburger, but it’ll make my guts cramp something awful and send me running to the bathroom in fairly short order (how severe either of those effects is depends on how well I’ve been doing).  And both of those things, the stomach pains and the bathroom sprints, cost spoons. So, which do I choose?

It’s just super-exhausting to be sick. So if we show up to trick-or-treat this year and the kids are dressed as Mark-and-Michael-five-minutes-form-now instead of dinosaurs, you’ll know why.

No Man Is An Island

Today is always a tough day for me. Every year I think it’ll be better, but it’s not. It never gets better, it just gets different. It might seem a little odd that a suburban girl from Alabama with no ties to New York or Washington would be so deeply affected, so grievously wounded by something that, if we’re honest, had nothing really to do with me.

For God’s sake, I’d never even been to New York. I was sixteen years old. Just a child, looking back, though I’d never have admitted it then. A senior in high school. It’s a tender age for one’s entire world to change.

It strikes me at odd times. Not just when older TV shows or movies have the towers in the background. Sometimes when friends in the military post stupid Facebook statuses, or when I watch my sons industriously stack blocks, or in the  gentle consuming quiet of the night. I never knew a single person who died that day, but the point is that I never will. And I have wept bitter tears for it.

I wish I could explain the deep ache in me for this. Perhaps it’s all we’ve done since then in the name of freedom and safety. Maybe it’s the profound hate that’s sprung up from the rubble. Maybe it’s the constant sacrifices of our young men and women to the insatiable god of war. Maybe it’s the feeling that something deep and vital was broken that day and never did heal up right. Maybe it’s the knowledge that my sons will one day be old enough to ask me about it and the fear of the day that they’ll understand it.

I’ve talked about this a little bit before. If you don’t care to follow the link, the important bit is this: “I will never be able to adequately explain to my children the profound grief of that day and of the days that followed it. Or of the near-decade of anger and frustration of a nation as we kept sending our young people out to defeat what could not be defeated, to continually break ourselves against misunderstanding as waves against rocks.”

And perhaps that’s really it. I was old enough to know what was happening, but not so old as to be able to find the edges of it. It was too big for me to get a hold of on the day, and as I get older, I get closer and closer to coming to grips. It’s the knowledge that I could do nothing to stop it, but the feeling that I somehow should have. It’s the feeling of missing people I never got the chance to meet. It’s the burden of someone else’s hate.

So today is a day that makes my heart hurt. I suspect it always will.


So, you know that passenger “seat” on motorcycles? No, not a side car, the one behind the driver. That seat has a name. An honest-to-God name, and that name is a “pillion.” When you ride on the back seat of a motorcycle, you are “riding pillion.”

I just learned this this weekend.

Because, for the very first time in my life, I got to ride pillion.

We’ve had the motorcycle since December.


Oh yeah. Check out all it’s majesty!

Well, I hadn’t ever ridden it until this weekend, for reasons including but not limited to the fact that I don’t know how to drive it. Andrew does, but he only just learned in November, and hadn’t really been comfortable with the idea of having a passenger when he was still getting the hang of being the driver.

Sensible, but frustrating.

But we made plans, collected my gear, and I read articles on being a motorcycle passenger. Because it’s not at all like it is in books and movies. Not at all. You don’t leap onto the back of the bike and wrap your arms around the rock-hard abdomen of your hunky and mysterious love-interest who always smells like sandalwood and musk. You don’t just throw on a helmet and zip off into the accident-free sunset.


One does not simply ride pillion on a motorcycle.

You see what I did there?

First, of course, you need all the same gear that the driver needs, and for all the same reasons. An appropriate helmet, an armored jacket, armored gloves, hefty boots. They aren’t just expensive fashion statements, they all serve a purpose. And that purpose is not dying.

Once you’re suited up, you need to ride with a driver that you absolutely trust. And then, you can’t just sit on the back and watch the scenery whiz by. You have to pay attention to traffic and terrain and turns and stop lights so you know how to hold yourself. You have to lean forward during acceleration so the front wheel doesn’t pick up off the ground, but not so far that your weight is on the driver. You have to brace yourself during breaking and gear shifts so you don’t jerk forward and knock into the driver. They tell me that you can do this by holding on to the motorcycle version of the “oh Jesus” handle which is directly behind your backside. Seems kinda tricky to me, so I went with putting my hands on the gas tank (not nearly as awkward as it sounds).

And then there’s the turning. You have to lean into the turns. If you’ve never been on a motorcycle before, this is completely counter-intuitive. I’m assuming that ever since humans sorted out walking upright we’ve preferred our horizon line be solidly horizontal. You know, in your rational portions of your brain, that you’re supposed to lean to the right during a right turn, but the strong instinct is to panic and stay upright. Even the gentlest of turns is a supreme exercise in self-control.

It’s also hard to see around the helmet of the driver. I spent most of my rides with my head tilted to one side or the other. It doesn’t sound like that much of a deal, but helmets aren’t exactly light, and holding your head to the side for half and hour gets a lot harder when it weighs twice as much.

So it was actually mentally taxing, physically exhausting, and not a little bit scary.

It was totally awesome.

Stop It. Just… Stop It.

So, apparently it’s Mental Health Awareness Week or something, which means that it’s time to the obligatory, well-intentioned-but-poorly-executed Facebook statuses. What follows is a literal copy-and-paste of one of these statuses.

“Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are NOT a sign of weakness. They are signs of having tried to remain strong for way too long. Would you post this on your wall, at least for one day? Most people won’t but it’s Mental Health Awareness week. Did you know that 1 in each 3 of us will go through this at some point in our lives… It is sad but true”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I struggle with both depression and anxiety, both of which can be, at times, absolutely debilitating. But as someone who desperately wants people to actually understand these conditions, I’m begging you, please please please, for the love of God, stop posting stuff like that. You are not helping.

Let me explain. I see all manner of things spreading misconceptions about depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. I’ve seen comedians stand in front of packed theaters and get belly laughs from the audience while talking about how antidepressants are a con because he’s been through all this horrible stuff and if anybody should need them, it’s him. But he obviously doesn’t, because, well, obviously. I’ve seen church signs that boldly proclaimed, “Too blessed to be depressed!” And though you, fellow Facebookers, mean well, it only perpetuates the lie that mental health issues can be blamed on something.

I won’t lie and tell you that a traumatic experience of some sort can’t send you into a depression, because it totally can. Just as some can cause anxiety, too. But, and I cannot stress this enough, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, it just happens. Sometimes, you just wake up one day and realize that you can’t remember the last time you weren’t sad or angry or anxious or just plain empty most of the time. You can’t remember you had a good night’s sleep or actually enjoyed a meal or wanted to spend time with other people. For no good damn reason. And honestly, I think that kind of depression is worse, because you can’t link it back to a single source. You can’t point your finger at something and say, “Yeah, that’s the one, I should probably sort that out in my head.” There’s nothing. It’s big and amorphous and omnipresent, and you’d fight it if you could, but there’s nothing to fight against. This brilliant post over at Hyperbole and a Half sums it all up pretty well, but in case you don’t feel like reading another blog post, I’ll quote the most poignant line for you. “But trying to use willpower to overcome the apathetic sort of sadness that accompanies depression is like a person with no arms trying to punch themselves until their hands grow back.  A fundamental component of the plan is missing and it isn’t going to work.”

It isn’t fair. There ought to be something or someone to blame. There ought to be something to fight against. There ought to be a reason. But there isn’t always a reason. You’re not always safe inside your own head. And that’s one of the worst feelings in the world.

My father is one of the kindest, most reasonable men I’ve ever had the good fortune to spend time with, and while he himself managed to dodge this particular bullet, he did have to watch as his siblings spiraled into alcoholism and self-destruction because of depression, and I’ll leave you all with something that he told me when I was still getting a handle on my situation.

Sweetheart, it isn’t your fault. I know it feels like this is your whole world right now. I know it feels like if you could just buck up, if you could just give yourself a stern enough talking-to, you could snap out of this and go back to the way things were. But you can’t, because some of the chemicals in your brain aren’t doing right. And it’s okay. It’s nothing and no one’s fault, and it’s okay. You can get help. With some determination and whatever medicine you need, you can get better. It will get better. And you will be okay.

No Is No

First off, the boys are doing great. They’re happy (broadly speaking), healthy, and enormous. Next week they will be 13 month old. I still stay home with them and they are still a joy. Michael is walking pretty well now, and Mark just refuses to, mostly because crawling is faster, I think. They babble like crazy, inherited more of my temper than I’m comfortable with, and are scary smart. Next month Andrew and I are having them baptized at the local Catholic church and our friends Brad and Melissa, my cousin Holly, and Andrew’s brother Matthew have agreed to be godparents. I’m extraordinarily busy, like, all the time, but I’m finally confident enough in my baby-wrangling skills that we’re starting to leave the house with the children for stuff that we don’t actually have to do. Tomorrow, I’m joining my cousin Lindsay’s playgroup on a trip to a Christmas tree farm, and next month we’re going to start going to story time a one of the local libraries. Exciting times.

But, you know, other stuff has been going on. According to the Internet, I haven’t posted on this thing since July. A lot of stuff has happened since then. A lot of stuff has happened — locally, nationally, globally — that I want to talk about. Stuff that I think is important. Stuff that I don’t know how to put into words right now. I wanted to talk about how wonderful shared joy can be and how gut-wrenching it is to watch a loved one’s grief. I wanted to write about how excited I am for the future and how, a decade later, I’m still not ready to write about September 11. I wanted to write about all the things that make me happy and angry and absolutely incredulous.

Instead, I’m going to write about a huge step forward in the struggle to end sexual violence toward women. And I’m going to be using some fairly frank language and talking about some sensitive topics, so if that’s not your thing or you like reading my blog to your six-year-old, you should probably just stop.

On Tuesday, a panel at the FBI voted to broaden the definition of “rape” for the first time is 1929. This is really exciting for advocates for rape victims. It makes the federal definition of rape a lot closer to what a lot of states and municipalities use, will make national statistics more accurate, will allow investigators to make stronger cases against rapists (as in, actually being able to charge them with rape as opposed to more minor charges like sexual misconduct or harassment), and will also make it easier for victims to come forward. This is a very good thing.

The old definition of rape was very narrowly defined as “Carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” It’s not a very good definition. It doesn’t include woman on woman rape, man on man rape, object rape, anal or oral penetration, or rape by coercion, which made it really hard to make cases involving any of those things. The new definition is “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” That pretty much takes care of all the problems with the definition that I mentioned previously.

Rape is a serious issue. It’s the most under-reported crime on the books. Because of that and the statistical challenges faced under the previous definition, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of just how prevalent rape is, but the estimation is that about 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. For women in the armed forces, that number goes up to 1 in 3. Almost everyone knows someone who has been a victim of sexual assault. You may not know it; they may not have ever told you — or anyone else, for that matter — but you probably do. It happens every day to people of all ages, races, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation. It’s never okay. The victim is never “asking for it.” It’s not something to joke about or brag about. It’s an incredible violation. And there’s no excuse for it.

That Awkward Moment When You Realize

Unless you are completely cut off from the rest of the world, odds are very good that you know that Osama bin Laden is dead.

Andrew and I were getting ready for bed last night when the email alert from CNN came in, so we went back out to the living room to watch the news and the President’s speech. We grinned at each other. We kissed and hugged. We made indelicate jokes. We opened the bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel Kentucky bourbon (aged 9 years) that we had been saving for a special occasion and drank a toast. We celebrated.

Today, the world is a different place. And, as if the Earth herself were rejoicing, it’s a beautiful day here. But it is another day. My babies needed tending, groceries needed buying, and Andrew went off to work. The Earth still goes around the sun and time continues on. And, one day, likely when I least expect it and when I’m least prepared, I’m going to have to explain all of this to my sons.

And that’s a tricky one. I can’t explain how I felt and what it meant the day bin Laden died without explaining how I felt and what it meant on September 11, and all the days intervening the two. I don’t know how to adequately put into words the change that happened inside of me. I was sixteen, I was a senior in high school, the world was mine to do with as I saw fit, and I was flush with the infinite possibilities that only young people can imagine. I was living in the best of times in the best of countries, untouchable. And then, quite suddenly, it was different. Everything was different.

I will never be able to adequately explain to my children the profound grief of that day and of the days that followed it. Or of the near-decade of anger and frustration of a nation as we kept sending our young people out to defeat what could not be defeated, to continually break ourselves against misunderstanding as waves against rocks. How could I possibly put into words how we let ourselves rip ourselves apart with fear and mistrust and anger and hate, letting the wounds fester?

And then, one day, we killed the face of it. The most wanted man in the world, who had eluded us for so long, was finally dead. And something inside of my chest loosened and there was one less thing to fear in this world and the tiny spark of hope grew a little bigger inside of me that maybe this whole effort, this insatiable god of war, that we, as a nation, had been sacrificing our children to hadn’t been for a loss.

But even so, how do you justify celebrating the death of another? How do you explain why it’s okay to be pleased about this? How do you tell your children that sometimes the things that someone does are so bad, so hateful, so evil, so destructive, that that person has forfeited his place among the living? That that person gave up on being a human being?

It is not appropriate for decent people to take joy in death. John Donne wrote, “Each man’s death diminishes me, / For I am involved in mankind.” Even so, I feel no shame in celebrating that there is a little less evil in the world. I don’t want to make this an object lesson about forgiveness. And maybe at some other time I can point out something about comeuppance. But right now, really, I’m just glad he can’t hurt anyone else.