This is going to be all over the place, so please buckle up and hang on tight. There are some major S-curves ahead. I’m going to attempt to tie together a bunch of things, and I have NO plan right now. If you’re into the whole “vibes” thing, grab a bunch of good ones and and maybe some soothing tea. This will get heavy. It’ll be light in places, too. But I’m (still) processing a death- by suicide- of someone I looked up to… and hormone replacement therapy, and writing during summertime, and forest fires, and I might just even include a fart joke, you never know.
We’re going to start off here, at this horrible tangle-y elevated cloverleaf that’s going to make us all a little carsick. We’re about midway through it, looking out the window at the traffic below, wishing we were done with this shit already. The air is hot and stuffy in the car, even though the windows are down. I don’t know whether to close my eyes and grit my teeth or just look out the window and stare at a fixed point on the horizon, an old sailing trick. Right now, I’m out of coping mechanisms, so I’m silently, fervently praying to the time-space continuum to just hurry us the hell along. Or rather, maybe my coping mechanisms, which I’m getting better at packing when I leave the house, are in the trunk but I just can’t get to them right now, and I know I could reach back there and get them, of course, but then I’d make myself even more carsick, and I’m really, really practiced at freezing and just baring down, so that’s what I’ll do. It’s more familiar. It’s what I’ve done my whole life. Gone wholly deer in headlights. Literally ball myself into a defensive position, hug my heart, and run the to the goal line like my life depends on it. Which it does, in a way.
This feeling of carsickness and despair started, dumbly, over a pair of shoes I listed on an online selling and buying forum. You know the one. The shoes I listed had seen better days, yes. But I fully disclosed that in my ad. I took pictures of their wear and tear. I even offered up solutions on how to make them better. And I listed them for dirt cheap. Still, the members of this group opted to voice their opinions, which sounded like this:
People will buy anything.
Now, having arrived at a much-memed Give No Fucks era of middle age, you would think I would have let this kind of thing roll off my back. But ALSO having found myself doggy paddling through a violent sea of wildly fluctuating lady hormones, I’m also… sensitive. Also, I’m just thin skinned in general. I let EVERYthing in. Even shit that shouldn’t matter. Like nasty, bitter comments about the condition of a pair of shoes I once wore. I’m getting better about stuff, I swear. You know that saying about how “the cracks are where the light gets in”? I lean heavily on the notion that a thin skin lets the world come in; that’s where all the beauty seeps through. And when it doesn’t? I’ve got techniques! I’ve read books! I meditated for 20 whole minutes this week! At the end of the day, though, I’m still someone who naively believes that people’s better angels will prevail most of the time. And when they don’t? Well, something in core belief system gives way and my whole foundation shifts, and it’s not good. It’s really not good.
I’ve lived a pretty darn good life up until now, so those of you who’ve been ghosted, shafted, lied to, and otherwise treated like you’re disposable, you’re probably thinking: Yeah, get in line, sister. People can be real jerks. How are you just now finding this out?
I mean… I know this about people. I know people can be animals. I guess I just don’t have reason to interact with those folks most of the time. And if they cross my path in person, it’s fairly easy to sidestep them and carry on with my day.
Not so online.
People online feel like shaming people is some kind of sport. They feel like their opinion is wisest and what’s needed. And the pile-on. Whoooboy, the pile-on! People love a good pile-on!
Having lived on the west coast for half my life, I have VERY different ideas from a lot of folks about “stuff”, and specifically stuff that’s sold second-hand. Boiled down, it’s like this: we Americans fill landfills with TONS of useful shit that, in the hands of the right person, can get a much needed second life. It just takes the right connection. East Coasters, especially (I guess, in the more affluent area where I live) are not always down with this philosophy. Now, LOTS of people ARE. Our local Goodwill is overflowing with stuff that’s been donated. I personally shepherd lots of stuff there on behalf of clients of mine. Lots of people are MORE than happy to give away and donate when they can. Most of the time it’s a problem of overwhelm and not knowing how to do it rather than the idea of it. But. And there’s always a but. There are some items that seem to be… taboo. Items which would happily by snatched up on the west coast, no questions asked. Items which gross out a small percentage of people here on the East Coast. And those grossed out folks have ruined my day for three days straight now with their petty comments.
So where does this all land in my brain? Right next to the place where I’m still processing Heather Armstrong’s death. And the extreme hatred that came her way from commenters during her career as a writer. And how that was REALLY hard for a brain like hers to process. Perhaps in the same way it is for mine. Heather was the author of dooce.com and a pioneer in the world of blogging. Heather took her own life in May of this year.
I didn’t know Heather personally. I kinda felt like I did, though. She was the original “mommy blogger” and she introduced (to me anyway) the concept of writing funny shit about your family online for money. She wrote a giant virtual permission slip to those of us with similar beautiful, dark, creative minds to write our lives down for all the world to see. I was too chicken-shit to do it full time and with any consistently, but Heather? She fucking NAILED IT. She wove together beautiful, touching moments with each of her kiddos with potty-mouthed humor and photographs from their lives and wound up with this very public, very colorful, loud and honest and unapologetic throw blanket that I felt safe and seen under. She made me laugh more than I’d like to admit about poop jokes. She inspired me to write more.
I remember I met an old friend at a bar in the early 2000s and he asked me what I was working on. I told him I was exploring how I could maybe some make money by keeping up my blog. He laughed in my face (after choking on his beer). He thought I was looney-tunes to even think about it. His comment was something like, “Yeah, you and everyone else”.
But how many Everyone Elses ACTUALLY followed through? I certainly didn’t. Heather did. And she did it for years. Eventually, she was getting paid to travel and read her stuff, and was invited to speak at college graduation ceremonies and seminars about blogging. She made some incredible friends along the way and introduced the world to THEIR writing and now, 15 years later, I am actually working with one of those friends of hers. It’s wild. It feels like she’s still with us in some ways, still photographing her dog with silly things stacked on his snout, still telling us about her beautiful daughters.
I have been wanting to write about Heather for weeks now. I haven’t really found my entry point, though. Like, what do I really say about a woman I’ve never met but who influenced my life so deeply? I mean, hell. I’m still flushing out the Catholicism from my lexicon and struggling to say “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide” because even though my thinking about it as some willful, spiteful act has completely changed since my days of wearing a plaid romper, it’s still hard to make my mouth form the words. I also know that what I saw of her online was just one dimension and that we all contain multitudes. I know from mutual acquaintances that she could also be difficult and hard-headed. (I can relate). Toward the end there, her writing started to scare me in a way I couldn’t put a finger on. It was reminding me of something, but I just couldn’t figure out what it was. I backed away in fear. It was a primal reflex: protect yourself, this is dangerous. So I did. I don’t know who I could have reached out to anyway… but I still feel a little guilty about sensing something was off and not doing anything about it. I’m not really in a position to add much to the national conversation about suicide except to say that: You just don’t know what someone is going through, do you?
Except. Maybe… just a little. Just a teensy bit. I do know.
I’ll be clear: I’ve never been suicidal. I usually chalk that up to my being terrified of guns and needles. I practically choke every time I swallow even my daily multivitamin, so I can’t imagine getting a whole bottle of something down my throat. But also… because I’m EXTREMELY FUCKING LUCKY. I share Heather’s dark brain chemistry. I also have a support system. I have people looking out for me. Heather did, too. We both had/have access to mental health care. So all I’m left with is this idea that it’s luck saving my life day after day.
It likely comes down to one molecule, maybe even one atom. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve never had that urge. And I don’t think it’s because I’m stronger, and Heather weaker. I don’t think it’s because I have a better grasp on things. I don’t think it’s because I’m smarter. I don’t think it’s because of fate, or the blueprints from an omnipotent god. I think it’s because of luck. Entropy. The randomness of the Universe. A molecule being in place where maybe it was missing in Heather, and anyone else who has ever contemplated ending their own lives.
Up until that one molecule, I think Heather and I might have been very similar. We let the trolls get under our skins. We made proverbial mountains out of molehills. We maybe didn’t read the How To Deal With Anxiety coping manual all the way through because we’re both a little scattered. We overthought things. We found the flaws before we found the beauty. But, oh how we talked about the beauty when we found the beauty. In the crystalline eyes of our daughters. In slapstick antics of our pets and friends. In our wildly varied and beautiful language. In the way a pair of impractical stilettos and bright blue tights could pull an outfit together. In the way light caught the corner of a skyscraper at dusk. In the way a song could transport you from your car to another world for three and a half minutes.
I feel her everywhere. I feel her looking down from wherever she is, telling me, “Go on, girl. Make that fart joke. Write it all down. Everything. You’ll get tougher as you go. Or maybe you won’t. Try anyway”.
I listened to a podcast recently about rounding Cape Horn by boat. The story takes place in the 1800s, during the time of huge wooden ships with multiple masts and hundreds of crew aboard. One of these boats is rounding Cape Horn in the almost unbelievable weather that happens below the 50th degree of latitude. There is an old sailor’s saying about this part of the world: “Below 40 degrees latitude, there are no rules. Below 50 degrees, there is no God”. The way the guest described the water around Cape Horn was this: Unrelenting waves. Ninety foot swells. Hurricane strength winds. I have literally forgotten the name of the podcast’s guest and his book. I’ve forgotten the name of the captain and the boat (I do remember that it was the Brits and that they were chasing a Spanish ship rumored to be filled with gold, because they wanted it for their own. Sigh. Colonialism). Anyway. The short story is this: lots of people died in the storm that besieged them. There was a man atop of a ninety foot mast, rocking with the boat, touching the surface of the water with each swing. Men were being flung to their deaths and no one could do a damned thing about it. That word, unrelenting, stuck with me. A storm that would not end. Ninety goddamned vertical feet of water crashing all around you. The noise of it all- the screams of the men being absorbed by the howling wind and rain. The impersonal nature of violence. The violence of nature.
When I heard the podcast, I thought of Heather. How her pain must have been that storm: unrelenting. What on earth do you do when there is no end in sight? How do you convince yourself that an end to pain exists?
Right now, on the East Coast, our skies are clearing after an unprecedented amount of smoke and haze from Canadian forest fires blanketed us in an eery orange glow. While it was happening, the sun was an orange dot in an unrelentingly uniform sky. My daughters were asking me when it was going to end, when they could go back outside and go swimming. I had to answer them, I don’t know. And I had to be okay with that, even though it was unsettling. I mean, my phone’s weather app was open constantly and predictions were that the air quality advisory was going to go away likely by the weekend, but, in the moment, it felt like we just couldn’t really know. I thought of Heather, about how she might explain this phenomena to her own daughters… whether or not she ever made peace with a mental cloud cover that seemingly never ended. I wondered if we humans ever get comfortable with not knowing. If she ever got to a place where she could properly weigh the nastiness online, that the good ultimately was more than the bad. The bad was just so damned UGLY. It seems she had a LOT of practice at it, what with people sending her all kinds of nasty emails and comments all the time… but I don’t know. Do we ever really harden ourselves to the world entirely? I’m not saying the trolls made her do it. But they certainly didn’t help, either.
I know I’ll get over this particular bout of thinking humanity’s rotten because of this shoe situation. I can just as easily take my ad down, too, can’t I? I want to leave it up there, though. For that one person who sees those shoes and doesn’t think “Ewwww” and instead thinks: Hey! This is a good deal! What a nice offer! I don’t want the trolls to win. And that’s a fucking lucky thought right there, that I can see past this particular moment, past this car-sick curve in the road, past this sea-sick storm, past this thinner-than-usual skin moment. Maybe I can sit here, anxious and trembling a little from coffee (or nerves) and suggest to myself that this new progesterone therapy might be to blame for my being extra sensitive. Or that not being able to see the end of the smoky haze tricked my brain into apocalyptic thinking for a few hours there. I have those options before me and that’s damned lucky I can see them. Gratitude for my luck; that’s what I’m leaning on here at the moment, but even that is hard.
Heather was a master of wrapping up a great post with some potty humor, so she would want you to know something about the air filter running in our house right now. For two days straight, it’s been running nonstop to help filter the air of toxicity from the fires. It has a sensor on it that tells you how bad or good the air is before it starts filtering. Up until things got bad overhead, we had our windows open. When we first turned it on, the sensor read the air quality as “moderate”, which means, “Ewwww. Turn this on”. So we did. It did a great job. The sensor now reads “Very Good”.
It also has a “sleep” mode, which means it can turn itself on if it ever senses the air suddenly going from “Very Good” to “Bad”. It’s only done that once since we had it. It was a few years ago. We were sitting around the coffee table, the girls and me. The air filter was maybe a foot away, tucked into a corner. Suddenly, the thing roared to life. It scared the bejesus out of all of us. The noise of the filter was deafening, it was working so hard. We jumped up, and the fart that Bobo had just cut lifted into the air with us. Beaversons looked at me, terrified. So did Bobo. Then we all wrinkled our noses at the smell. Ah, right. It was the fart. The fart ignited the air filter. We fell over laughing.
We don’t turn the filter on often, but when we do, we all say, “Remember that time it sensed Bobo’s fart?”.
And that seems as tidy a way to end this. I hope your filters are on and that they’re strong, that they can sense danger before it gets to your tender soul. I hope the stinkers in your life are being driven away by the wind. I hope you hug your loved ones. I hope you know you make a difference in this world.