Within These Walls

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My girls and I moved into our home 4 years and 7 months ago, and tomorrow (or later today, I should say) we move out and on to a new life in a new home. I'm too tired to find the words for everything I want to say about what this home has meant to us, but it's too momentous an occasion to let it slip by without some acknowledgment.

When we moved in, I was a wreck.  My relationship of 16 years had ended and for the first time in my adult life, I was alone.  Or not quite.  Alone with my daughters - 2 and 5 years old - who depended on me to figure this new life out, which seemed a tall order when I had no idea who I even was anymore.

The first night I moved in was New Year's Eve and, with the girls at their father's as it was 'his' night (a bizarre concept then and even now), I felt truly alone.  At midnight, I took off my wedding ring and told myself in my bravest voice that I was going to be okay, not really believing it but knowing that those two little girls needed me to try.  I recently came across a piece I wrote a few years ago about that turning point in my life and moving into this home.  In it I wrote: "I found a new, ghost-less home, warm and bright with a playground nearby.  It would do.  The walls looked thick enough to withstand my heartbreak and its alt-folk soundtrack."

I wrote not too long ago about how much has changed for me since that time, so I won't repeat myself here.  I am leaving this home a different woman, and a very grateful one.  I'm grateful for so many blessings in my life, not the least of which has been this home that has been my sanctuary.

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Tonight at midnight, I took a moment to say thank you.  I even left a note.  Several months, perhaps a year or so, after I moved in, I decided to paint my bedroom and in doing so came across a note that someone had written on the wall inside the closet, up above the closet door.  It is faint and difficult to decipher in the photo.  It reads: "My 2 beautiful babies have blessed this home, and have created so many wonderful memories for me within its walls.  Me. 10/21/03".  I painted around it, and later discovered that there were dates and names - presumably those of her (I'm assuming "her") children - written on the walls inside the closets of the other two bedrooms.  It continues to fill me with such warmth to know that they loved this home, too.

So tonight, before they went to bed, my girls scrawled their names and the date inside their closets, right beside "Sydni" and "Noah".  And at midnight, I climbed up on a chair and added my note to the wall in my closet, soon to belong to someone else.  I didn't have time to think ahead about what to write, to plan things out as I always like to.  I just went with what came from my heart in the moment:  "This has been our home for 4 1/2 years.  It is where I healed, and where my daughters and I have grown.  It has been full of love, and we are leaving with so many happy memories that we made here within these walls.  This is a special place, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.  Kirsi July 29/17".

As I sit here tonight, in this home for the last time, I am thinking about those happy memories.  My girls are now 7 and 9.  They've grown so much here.  And they can't wait for the new bunkbed in the new room they'll be sleeping in tomorrow night and the big back yard and mostly the cat that they think we are getting soon (that yes, we are probably getting soon).  But I know that they will remember this place as fondly as I will, and we will go on to make new memories in our new home.

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The tenants moving in after us are a mother and child.  I hope some day they come across our notes and the ones from before us, and they add their own and speak of the love and joy they found here, too.  There's plenty of room for more love and joy and gratitude.

Shine

precious-stones

My daughters are rock hounds.  They come home from outdoor outings pockets heavy with their treasures: sparkly mica, smooth pebbles, rocks shaped like hearts, mama!  One afternoon last fall I took them to a gem shop I'd discovered and their jaws dropped at the sight of a room full of polished stones of every colour.
 
They are not terribly discerning in their selections, though, to my eye.  Pale, dull, ordinary granite is as precious as glittering quartz and magical tigereye.
 
Which is how a chunk of concrete that somehow became detached from our front porch - no one knows how, mama! - came to decorate our bathroom shelf alongside an amethyst I purchased for a pretty penny.  "Really?" I asked my daughter when she brought it to me, delighted at her find, before I swiftly shut myself up.  She thinks it's beautiful - all the small stones bound together in shades of steel and mouse and storm - and that's all that matters.
 
Like I have with so many other works of young art and scavenging, I put the concrete on display to appease her.  I don't have a home, to my mind.  Rather, I have the pleasure of living in the home that belongs to my daughters.  This home is the scene of their childhood, in significant part, and I aim to make it warm and safe and a reflection of them and our love.  I'll have plenty of time to have a home of my own - with things 'just so' - when they grow up and leave me, a day that is coming far too quickly (sob).  Until then, our home is their nest and they can weave it with whatever shiny things catch their crow eyes, whichever bits of concrete they pry loose, as far as I'm concerned.
 
But I've found, over these last few months, that my appeasement has slowly given way to appreciation, my eyes seeing beauty through hers.  The stones are both precious - one by birth and one by my child's holy anointing - and they have come to serve as a reminder to look for the beauty in the everyday, to try to see the world as a child does, which is just as it is in all its splendour: wonderful and gorgeous without even trying.  Worth a second glance.
 
The stones have also proven to have healing properties.
 
When the unusual pairing catches my eye, this Lauryn Hill lyric almost always floats to the surface of my mind:
 
 "Don't be a hard rock when you really are a gem."
 

I've been a hard rock, lately.  I've been closed off and shut down by circumstances both within and without.  Depression blew down my door with the cold wind of winter, not as ferocious as in years past but still biting and ambivalent to my corner-cowering.  My foundation has also been rattled by some upsetting interactions - one very personal, one professional, and one with a complete stranger - which all share the common thread of my words being taken by others not as they were intended, or with the benefit of the doubt, but instead, in twisted ways that formed spike strips, busting my tires and the self-belief they were inflated with.
 
Truth, or at least my best attempt to reach it, is the reason I write because it's the reason we're here.  I wear my share of masks and utter pretty cover-ups, too, but the good stuff is always the raw, honest truth underneath what we manufacture. Life is about mining for that truth - for what is honest, for real connection - and vulnerability is truth's necessary companion; it's the rope down that chasm.  It's slippery and knotted at uneven lengths or not at all for a stretch.  It's a long way down and vulnerability is the only way to the bottom where the good stuff is waiting.  But it comes with risk.  The rewards are worth it, but the slip-footed fumbles make me question the expedition, sometimes.
 
Do I keep writing? I've asked myself.  Do I keep telling my truth?  Do I keep entrusting it to ears that may ring with judgments and malformed translations?
 
Do I turn bitter and angry?  Do I turn away from those who have hurt me?  Do I board up my heart?
 
I've been holed up these last few months, quiet with my questions and doubts.  I've been hardening beneath their weight.  The truths I want to tell - which are simple and concomitantly complex -  have compressed smaller and smaller into a thin layer of exhausted meekness formerly known as ferocity.
 
Then, one recent morning, the stones caught my attention and the refrain again belted through my brain: "Don't be a hard rock when you really are a gem."   This time, however, the soloist kept repeating: You're a gem, you're a gem, you're a gem, you're a gem, you're a gem.
 
You're a gem.  And you need to shine.
 
The tectonic plates under my life shifted in that moment and there was a buckling in me.  A new mountain range.  These events are never really as sudden as they seem - they are the culmination of millions of moments - but the feeling that overcame me felt that way.  I felt suddenly done.  Done with ears that don't listen.  Done with thoughtless broken telephone games that lead from careless ears to mistaken judgments on lips.  Done with being a hard rock.
 
I'm going to shine.
 
I'm going to keep dangling on vulnerabilities.  I'm going to load my pockets with the truths I find down the chasm, and I'm going to climb back up and shout, "Hey, guys! Come see what I found!" and speak those truths loud and clear.
 
I'm going to thaw my heart and forgive and give others the benefit of the doubt even when I feel they haven't done the same for me.  I will meet callousness and carelessness with kindness.  I will keep striving for connection.
 
The stones will remain on our bathroom shelf, lining our nest, a priceless art installation on the themes of beauty and strength.  And when my eyes alight upon them, I will hear that familiar refrain and be reminded to shine.

I will feel beautiful in my shades of steel and mouse and storm.  And on days when others see me as concrete, I will anoint myself as precious.

The Girl in the Body

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I was interested in volunteering, so we met to talk about the help I could offer.  "I feel strongly about the work that you do," I explained to the volunteer coordinator, who welcomed me kindly and spoke excitedly about opportunities for me to be involved.  I had already completed most of the volunteer training but had missed an important session, the content of which she wished to review with me.

She gave me some handouts.  The organization serves a vulnerable population, many of whom battle depression and suicidal thoughts.  Some of their clients self-harm, she explained, as she indicated a list of ways that people self-harm.

I read through the list and stopped at a word.  One word can change everything, including you.

I sort of knew.  Not at the time, I don't think, but with hindsight I sort of knew that what I'd done probably fit the definition.  It was a thought I'd kept submerged but here it was, now, staring at me.  Confirmation.   

I took a deep breath.  

"I know a little about self-harm," I explained to her, quietly.  "I used to do it." 

Until today, until this post, she is the only person I have ever told. 

***** 

Hitting. 

It was right there on the list, after cutting and burning.   

Seventeen years ago, when I was in the depths of my worst depression, I would sometimes hit myself.

I think it started in a moment of anguish.  I think, in a moment of absolute despair and rage at the lot I'd been cast and the never-ending pain, I hit myself hard on the thigh without thinking about it, a lashing out to release some of my pent-up frustration.  

It worked.  I felt a little better.  In fact, I felt a lot better, at least for a few minutes.  So I kept doing it. Not all the time but often when those moments came up, I'd hit myself hard on the thigh.  Sometimes repeatedly.

To someone who has no experience with self-harm, I imagine it is difficult to understand why anyone would do such a thing to themselves.  I'll do my best to explain what self-harm was for me.  I hasten to add that I can only speak for myself; this may not reflect what self-harm is for others.

Hitting myself made me feel better because it distracted me.  For a few moments, maybe a few minutes, I could focus on physical pain rather than the horrendous emotional pain that was torturing me.  Importantly, the physical pain was a pain that would go away.  It was a pain I could handle.  My emotional pain, I was convinced, would never leave me.

I suppose, in some subconscious way, it also served a secondary purpose: It was a way to punish myself.  I expect that on some level I wanted to hurt myself because I believed I deserved to be hurt.  But the truth is, I don't remember thinking that.  I only remember wanting the escape, however temporary.  Punishment was a bonus.

There were no scars for you to see.  There was no blood.  There were no scratches on my skin.  There were no wounds that needed healing except the ones within me.   The skin on my thigh would blaze red and then, within a few minutes, the redness would fade away as if nothing had ever happened.  My body kept its secrets well.

As I got help for my depression - began therapy, started taking medication - I hit myself less and less often until it was no longer the tool I reached for.  I had collected other tools, healthier coping mechanisms that had me run straight at the emotional pain and tackle it head-on. 

I'm not altogether in the clear.  I have a self-harm souvenir that has stayed with me: Sometimes, when I'm having those moments again, my illness conjures up the image of someone hitting me, pushing me into a wall, violently beating me, throwing me down stairs.  This image flashes through my sick brain unsummoned and however much I reject it and however horrific I know this would be if it actually happened, this image comes to me and I feel...soothed.  Even just thinking about it now, I can feel my body relax.  Even though I have built new, healthy circuits, this faulty wiring remains like a vestigial tail.

Some people believe that self-harm is a pre-cursor to suicide.  Some believe it's a way to get attention.  But self-harm often happens in secret - in fact, I'd say that's a key part of its modus operandi - and although self-harm and suicidal thoughts sometimes stalk in pairs, they are not the same.  I wasn't trying to hit myself to death.  Again, I can't speak for everyone, but I don't believe that people who harm themselves are trying to die.  On the contrary: They are trying to live.  I was trying so hard to live.  Self-harm was a way to keep living when it felt like there was no other way.

 *****

This is illness, like any other, although the invisibility of mental illness makes it particularly brutal and cowardly.  This is the body fighting itself.  But we're not our bodies.  We're the ones within.  The girl in the body is there.  The boy in the body is strong.  The father.  The mother.  The child.  The friend.  The one you love is there inside that battlefield body, whole and fighting.

I no longer hit myself, or harm myself in any way.  My hands are peaceful allies.  My thighs are only red these days from the weight of children on my lap.  I no longer need to keep my body's secrets.

I no longer need to fight pain with pain, fire with fire.  Now, the girl in the body blazes bright.

Our Magic

My youngest daughter commands the ocean to do her bidding (Nova Scotia, July 2016)

My youngest daughter commands the ocean to do her bidding
(Nova Scotia, July 2016)

A few months ago, we celebrated my daughter's 9th birthday with a Harry Potter party.  She's a big Harry Potter fan and I'm a big fan of getting crafty for my kids' birthdays.  I'm no Martha Stewart, by any means, but I like to add a few creative touches and Pinterest is packed with great "Harry Potter party" ideas.  I printed Hogwarts house crests and word searches, crafted Quidditch cake toppers, and made games like Pin-the-Scar-on-Harry, Find the Golden Snitch, and Free Dobby, the latter of which is my own creation and involves throwing as many socks as you can into a laundry basket (loads of fun, pun intended).  I also made each guest a booklet of spells and a magic wand out of a wooden knitting needle.

The party was a hit, in large part because we followed what I believe to be the golden rule of a successful children's birthday party:  Invite very few children.  Three of my daughter's friends joined us and the kids had a great time playing the games and casting spells.  After cake and present time, while the kids were happily playing, I retreated to my bedroom to give them some space and privacy, because no one wants their mom hanging around, as super cool as she may be.

I listened to them running about casting spells upon each other with their wands.  "Expelliarmus!" one would shout, as the others frantically flipped through their booklets to find a counter-spell.  They helped each other decipher pronunciations and definitions.  Then, I overheard this exchange about the "Reparo" spell:

"What does that mean?" my daughter's friend asked her. 

 "It's like to repair something," my daughter explained.  She continued:  "Like repairing split ends."

Her comment gave me pause.  It made my stomach churn a little to realize that her only, or at least immediate, connection to the concept of "repair" has to do with split ends, of all superficial things, as if that is all we repair as women. 

It was a small comment.  It was not heavy with women-as-slaves-to-beauty ideals and it doesn't represent the sum total of her perception of women and who we are in this world.  Of course it doesn't.  But I still want her to know that as women, we repair so much more than split ends. 

We repair ripped jeans and faulty wires and kindergarten crafts gone terribly wrong.

We repair broken dishes and transport trucks and businesses and communities.

We repair little broken hearts with open arms and soft words.  We repair big broken hearts the same way.

We repair families and friendships.  We repair relationships.  And when we can't, we repair ourselves.

We repair ourselves over and over and over again. 

I want my daughters to know that our magic is not in our beauty, although our beauty can be spellbinding.  Our magic is in our compassion.  It's in our curiosity.  It's in our tenacity.  

Our magic can be seen climbing mountains and corporate ladders.  It can be seen standing on stages and standing on guard and standing up for the voiceless and vulnerable.

Our magic can be seen pacing hallways at 2 am soothing babies back to sleep on our shoulders, and it can be seen proudly marching on our streets.

We stupefy with our astounding acts of courage and kindness.  We disarm with our smiles, yes, but also with our measured words and gentle touch.  We conjure up ideas that make history.

 "It's leviOsa, not levioSA," my daughter quotes from the movie, giggling with her coven, as yet unaware that she is a powerful sorceress without her knitting needle wand.  

The "Wingardium Leviosa" spell allows the user to make an object levitate.  But our magic moves more than objects. 

We lighten the room and raise the world.

Sometimes, I Even Dance

Goofball in full effect

Goofball in full effect

Four years ago on New Year’s Eve, I moved into my new home.  My ex-husband and I had separated five months before but had continued to live in the same house up until then as I looked for work and we tried to figure out how to do this whole thing (yep, lived in the same house as my ex for five months…good times).  I found a place on Kijiji – a three bedroom house, the main floor of one side of a duplex – and as soon as I saw the ad, I knew it was the right place for the girls and I.  I got the keys and began moving my things in on December 31st, 2012.

It was a difficult night but a good one.  An important one, and it was so appropriate that I was beginning my new life with a new year.  I took my wedding ring off at exactly midnight because I’m dramatic like that sometimes (Drama?  I have a degree in it!).  I vowed to myself that I would move forward and find my way and be strong.

Tonight, my plans got cancelled and I find myself home alone again on New Year’s Eve.  But this time, it feels different.  Four years ago, I was lonely.  Tonight, I’m just alone, and happily so.  Four years ago, I was terrified.  Now, I have my fears but I am brave.  I have made it this far and I’m still standing and sometimes, I even dance.  Four years ago, I didn’t know who I was and I felt I couldn’t be whole on my own.  Tonight, I am in the company of someone I love to be with, someone I have come to know and finally care for: Myself. 

I know now that I am a good person.  I know that I am stronger and more capable than I ever expected and than was probably ever expected of me.  I know that I am a goofball and any man who doesn’t find me funny is not the man for me.  I know that I am my favourite and truest self when my sister is home with me and we are laughing.  I know I will beat you at Scrabble unless you’re my mother.  I know my daughters think I hung the moon and I know that I am deserving of that love and honour.

I know that I can be alone on New Year’s Eve in my bed with my wine and my early 90s hip hop and my comfy leggings and I can be perfectly happy.

My counsellor often says to me, “And do you give yourself credit for that?”  I have a tendency to view progress in my life as an act of fate, as the result of some good fortune and not, in fact, as a result of the hard work I have put into enacting the changes that have made that progress possible.  I look back at these last four years and it could be said that not much has changed.  I am in the same rented home.  I have fewer dollars in my bank account and am in fact making less money than I was then.  I am still single.  But these are not failures.  I have made a home for my children where they are warm and loved, a place I am always happy to come home to.  And if my furnace breaks down, someone comes to fix it with no cost to me.  That’s not too shabby.  I left the job that paid well but was costing me my mental health, and I’m now in a job that doesn’t give me a lot in my bank account, but gives me confidence and a feeling that I’m doing something important.  I’d still like to find love, but I no longer need to.  There’s enough love in this home to last me a lifetime and alone is not lonely.  Alone is dancing in your favourite dress lip synching to Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It” and no man can make me feel better than that.

Four years, and sometimes the pain of it all is a breath away and sometimes the memories are like the scenes of a movie I saw once and can barely remember.  The fact is that a lot has changed.  I’m not the same person I was then.  I am the woman excavated from her.  Under all that fear and doubt was this woman who I am proud to be.  Flawed and at times still flailing.  Imperfect and at times beautifully impolite.  But fierce and loving and talented and busting her ass to make this short life a good one.

2017.  We’re properly in the 21st century now, kids.  It’s the 21st century so let’s live like we understand how amazing that is.  This is the future.  We’ve made it.  And we can make this year whatever we want it to be.

Four years from now, I hope I am as happy as I am tonight, whatever happiness is to me then. Whether I’m full to the brim after a year of incredible experiences with my daughters, or because of a job I love, or because I’ve written something that feels like the gorgeous truth, or because I’m in a relationship that celebrates the best of who we are together and alone.  Or simply because I have a pretty dress to wear and Montell Jordan to play on my iPhone.

I wish you and yours this kind of happiness, too.  Turn up the music and dance and celebrate how far you’ve come and the amazing things awaiting you.  Happy New Year, dear friends.  Here's to a great one.