The Awakening *Spoilers*

I first began reading classic novels in college. I loved to read something that had stood the test of time, something that I felt I would gain some intellectual benefit from apart from simple enjoyment. It was exciting to catch quick references to characters or plots from stories in other content I consumed that before would have just slipped by unnoticed. I’ve found the classics add a lot of depth and context to many other aspects of life and art.

The Awakening is a very short novel by Kate Chopin I read nearly a decade ago. I wish I knew exactly what year. I hardly remembered the story at all. I just retained the vague feeling that I had not been too impressed by it. Someone suggested this book to me recently, and I was proud to say I had already read it. Although, I was a little embarrassed I didn’t remember more about it. Realizing this, I decided it was a good time to reread it, especially knowing, at only 157 pages, it wouldn’t take me more than a day or two to casually flip through. I was excited to see how ten years of further life experiences would alter my perception of the story.

It was fascinating to go over the text with the double vision of reading it for the second time. I could recall my original thoughts, while also experiencing it as if for the first time. There is something indescribably poignant and sad about seeing how much I’ve grown through revisiting a story like this. When I was younger, I remember being rather bored in the beginning of the novel, and utterly frustrated and perplexed at the ending. Now… well now, I felt my soul gripped by every word, every thought and experience Edna Pontellier had. Ironically enough, I am now the same age as she was in the book.

When I was younger, everything seemed so much simpler and straightforward. If Edna loved Robert and not her husband, and Robert loved her back, then what was the dilemma? Just leave your husband. Nothing is more important than love, especially a love that is within your reach. I found it hard to understand why Robert left for Mexico. It angered and confused me. When he finally came back, my naïve heart truly believed they would finally be together in the end. Even when Edna left to go tend to her friend, I felt no uneasiness about Robert waiting for her to return. Of course he would.

This time, as soon as the inevitably ending began it’s slow approach, I felt my chest getting tighter. Despite not remembering the book, I knew immediately Robert would not be there when Edna returned. Some part of me thinks that even Edna knew as she sat on the porch for a few minutes before going back in, as if to prolong the happy delusion for just a few moments longer. This time, I also knew in my very bones why Edna appeared by the seashore of their happy island summer homes. I knew she would not be returning to have dinner with Victor. As a teenager, I was dumbfounded about what was happening all the way up to the point where she stripped all of her clothes off in front of the ocean waves. I remained in disbelief even at the very end.

Revisiting this story after so much has happened in my own life was profound. It ached in all the best and worst ways. It swallowed me up completely. It held a mirror up to my very soul and cradled my crumpled form as I wept inconsolably. There is something about youth that fills us with crisp simplicity and happy illusions about life and love. The painful pull of life that drags us along into the future adds such complexity and depth to concepts and convictions that once appeared so crystal clear and unchangeable. Sometimes things cannot have a happy ending. Even love is not enough in many instances. Certain decisions cannot be taken back or rectified regardless of how wretched we feel about them later. One word spoken too soon, a poor choice of phrase spat out in a moment of high emotion, can change the course of a life forever. Even small stones, carelessly thrown into the still pond of life create irrevocable ripples that spread out in ways we couldn’t have possibly imagined.

Despite this, there is such agonizing, undulating beauty to be found within deep, unalterable grief and regret. Books like these, characters like Edna, are a haven for the innermost broken-winged birds of my soul. They are a reminder that while I may not be able to change the course my life has already taken or the decisions left open to me because of that course, I am not alone in my sorrow. Others have experienced the complex emotions I often feel incapable of expressing for myself, and even more will experience them in the future. I’ll leave you will a quote from my favorite artist that sums up this sentiment nicely:

You’re not alone in anything. You’re not alone in trying to be.

The Ladder Song – Bright Eyes
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House Fire

How can I ever forgive myself
for the fire I set in ignorance
and intentionally used to burn down
the only place that I belong

A decade spent sifting through ashes
ears still ringing from the roar of the flames
a warm home replaced with the
unbearable weight of my own mistakes

How can I ever trust myself again
to hold what is precious to me
when all I've ever done
is ruin what I love

All I can offer is to stand apart
and busy my hands by sifting through
the charred remains of my sanctuary
forever laid solitary and silent

How can I bear to move on from these ruins
of a life I loved more dearly than myself
to commit myself to a waking world that
pales in comparison to burnt memories

The Morning After

Head underwater
heavy lungs
hard to breathe
swimming through thoughts
the thick molasses of memory

Two days sacrificed
at the altar of alcohol
the temptation 
to drink poison
is quite telling

Dense, dizzy fog
cannot be shaken off
I'm getting too old
to keep making 
these same mistakes

Why can't I stop
tripping forward
into failure?
my higher self
can't hold me back

There is a strange sickness
somewhere inside me
that sours everything
a stench of burnt sugar
saturates my cells

No swift violence
can fully cut it out
crisscrossed incisions
carved into soft flesh
were never worthwhile

Stop this ceaseless spinning
the sickening swirl that swells
and consumes common sense
save me from the inevitable
cascading crash of myself 

Childhood Friends

I wish someone had told me to hold onto all the people I once knew. I wish I had some way of knowing what I was throwing away, or at the very least letting fizzle out, watching with disinterest as my many fertile gardens of companionship withered in the hot sun of time. When you’re young, it’s hard to realize what you have. Everything just feels like it’s always been that way, that it will always be that way. Friends come and they go without much fear of social isolation. There will always be new peers, new classmates, new friends to take their place. Every school year is a new start, a new chance to build connections. After high school, there is always college to find your chosen family.

Six years after getting my Bachelors and only now am I beginning to realize the opportunities I squandered for all those years. I would always hear people saying that high school doesn’t matter. That you’ll leave those doors and all the people inside behind forever once you graduate. Not to worry about those relationships, because there will be plenty more that are more important in the future. Looking back, I wish instead they had said those years don’t have to matter. I realize now this was a message for people struggling in school, the social outcasts, the kids that felt like they’d never fit in or find friends. This message was a beacon of hope for them, a call to keep their courage as they moved out into new avenues of life. The point wasn’t that I shouldn’t invest effort in maintaining the relationships I did have. It wasn’t about devaluing the whole idea of childhood friends.

At the time, it seemed like a waste of energy, pathetic even, to try to cling to old friends that were no longer around you everyday. After all, there was a whole new pool of peers to meet and mingle with. Why reach out to people from the past? I never really gave much thought to the fact that the bonds I formed in college would one day become less convenient as well. What then? It was quite a shock when I started working full time to feel the difference between a classroom and a work place. Not only were there far less people to interact with in general, but those people were vary rarely of an age that I would consider my peers. We had very little in common. I already had trouble finding companions within my age group, let alone outside of it.

All these years later, I often find myself looking back on all the bridges I burned, wondering if there is any way I could salvage them, or if the other party has already forgotten me. I never understood how precious a childhood friendship truly is until it was too late. There is an empty space inside the new connections I make. There was something so special is the knowledge that the other person really knew you. They knew all of you. They had watched you grow up and you had known them just as intimately. That’s something you can never have with someone else, even if they tell you about who they used to be. You are still only seeing it through their eyes, only getting the bits they want to reveal. And something aches inside of me when I acknowledge that.

Stains

Some days mistakes
feel like stains
on my soul
a filth I can't
scrub clean
with good deeds

Shame that saturates
the once white linen
of my small life
no amount of bleach
can undo the
damage done

I've always struggled
with shades of grey
one slight flaw
and I am forever
sullied and beyond
redemption

But the soul is not
a garment that I wear
or a soiled sheet
that can be
thrown out
and replaced

The soul is eternal
it cannot be tarnished
by earthly errors
there is always room
to make amends and
uncover my light once more

How I Was Raised

When I was little, my sister and I were both amazingly advanced for our ages. We were quick witted, intelligent, and talented even when we were in preschool. It’s strange to look back and realize that. Especially now that I’m working with children everyday. I finally understand the excitement I’d often see in the adults around me as a child. No matter how you come into contact with a gifted child, even if you have no real connection to them, it is still an incredibly invigorating thing to behold. I’ve met quite a few children of all different ages who’ve stood out to me and everyone I work with. We all still remember them and reminisce about them occasionally. It’s wild to imagine that I was once one of those kinds of kids. Perhaps that’s how my second grade teacher managed to remember me when she saw me working in a grocery store so many years later.

The weirdest thing for me about all of this is the fact that I had no idea that I stood out when I was younger. Especially considering I was always comparing myself to my sister who was also very gifted, but had a few years on me as well. I do remember a couple teachers making a fuss over me. I think my first grade teacher even asked me if I would show my drawings to her parents when they came one day. I obviously can’t be sure, but I think one of the main reasons I never paid much attention to the compliments of these people was due to the indifference of my own family. That in addition to never measuring up to my sister, left me always feeling inferior no matter how great my personal accomplishments really were.

My mother’s lack of enthusiasm and praise for anything I did is one of the reasons I grew to resent her in my teenage years. How could she respond to my achievements so callously? Once I began to realize just how much potential I had as a young child, it really stung to know she didn’t encourage and compliment me more. I even began to believe that it was because she didn’t really love me very much. Despite the attention I always received from the other adults in my life and even my peers, it was never able to replace the recognition I longed for from my own mother. I believe this has greatly contributed to my current inability to acknowledge my own successes and talents.

I’ve brought this up to my mother in the past. I should have known she had only the best intentions at heart. Nearly everything she did as a mother was carefully calculated. Unlike most parents, she actually read parenting books and did a lot of research on the best ways to raise a child before she had my sister and I. Unfortunately given the time period, there was quite a bit of bad advice in those books back then. I’m not sure if she read this particular idea in her books, but it does seem to make logical sense either way. She told me that the reason she didn’t lavish my sister and I with praise over our amazing talents was because she thought it would make us conceited and full of ourselves. She didn’t want us to become little brats. I can definitely see how that might have been the result. So now I can’t say whether or not I’d have changed my childhood if I could or not.

This example is just one of the many reasons I would never want to have children. It seems that no matter what route you take in raising them, there will be some unintended negative consequences. My mother also always provided everything I needed. She took care of everything for me. At first this seems like she was being a perfect parent. However, the end result was actually that I feel completely incapable of doing most things for myself. Whereas my friend’s mother was a mess. She ended up having to take on a lot of the responsibility of raising herself and her younger siblings. But a childhood like that actually made her a much more competent and self assured adult. There is simply no way to not make mistakes when raising a child. You are going to fuck them up in one way or another regardless of how hard you try not to.

I may not be able to change the past, but I am still able to learn from it. Maybe I do feel like I’m never good enough because of the way my mother chose to raise me. I don’t blame her for that. She did the best she could and overall she did a pretty amazing job, in my opinion. All I can do now is try to tend to the child that still resides within me. I don’t need the approval and acknowledgement of others, even my own mother, to feel worthy of my place in this world. I am good enough just as I am, regardless of how I measure up to those around me. I can give myself the recognition I once so desired to receive from my mom. I may not be the gifted child I once was, I may not stand out much at all anymore, but I am still an incredible, unique, masterpiece. There has never been, nor will there ever be someone quite like me. The things I create and contribute to this world matter. I have the ability to add love, beauty, laughter, and joy to this world in a way that only I can. And I don’t need anyone else’s permission to do so.

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Sketchy Sexual Experiences

I was talking to my friend the other day on the phone. I wanted to know some of the less discussed details about the beginning of her relationship with her now husband. When did they first kiss, how long did they wait before having sex, etc. Even though I know that these things are highly personal milestones in any relationship, I felt like it would help me to have some idea of the timelines for other people. Discussing this with her was highly therapeutic for me. I realize that I don’t need anyone else to justify my decision on waiting to have sex. In the end it’s my decision and whenever I choose to have sex with a partner is valid. Yet it did help me feel more confident and reassured after hearing someone else’s perspective and experience.

Working at a child advocacy center for over a year now, I’ve learned a lot more about sex and consent than I expected. It is absolutely heartbreaking to hear the stories of some of these teen girls who we see here. Their stories all sound so similar. They tell us they didn’t want to scream or make a scene. They second guess and doubt their own intuition and perspective. They are ashamed. They blame themselves. They don’t know what to do. They feel bad for their abuser even, at times. After a while, something finally clicked inside of my head and I began to see my younger self in a lot of these girls. Some of the scenarios they describe sound so familiar.

When the Me Too Movement first started a few years ago, I felt somewhat conflicted. I saw everyone around me sharing stories of times they had been abused or disrespected by men. It seemed like all women had at least one story. Yet after searching my memories, I felt I didn’t have any of these types of experiences. I felt lucky, of course, grateful, but I also felt confused. Why didn’t I have any of these stories when so many other women did? I couldn’t find a satisfying answer. Of course my self-hating, low self-esteem mind told me that it must be because I’m not attractive enough to be assaulted. Which I know is offensive and ridiculous.

Since that time, I’ve thought about a lot to different sexual encounters I had growing up. It feels weird to say, but looking back, I feel like I was victimized at least twice without even realizing it or acknowledging it. How can that be possible? I’ve asked myself that question, and I still don’t know. Maybe the only separation is whether or not you feel like you’ve been traumatized. That doesn’t seem right to me either though. Just because a lot of the kids we see at our center are in love with their abuser or even enjoyed the sexual experiences they’ve had, doesn’t mean how things happened wasn’t wrong. It doesn’t mean these adult men haven’t broken the law and done egregious things. Does the fact that at the time I was complacent or believed I deserved what happened because of the situation I put myself in make what happened to me acceptable? I don’t think so.

It’s not as if I want to go after these boys from my past or have them prosecuted. Although I’ve come to accept I wasn’t to blame for what happened back then, I don’t necessarily put the blame on those boys either. I think what’s more important is to address the toxic, sex-phobic culture we were raised in. The culture that led me to believe being drunk and alone with boys meant it was my fault if I was then sexually assaulted. The culture that taught these boys what they did was normal, perfectly alright behavior. This is what I want to address. I don’t think the boys from my past had any intention to harm me or even disrespect me. They were just doing what young boys are expected to do. I doubt they viewed themselves as sexual predators, nor do I necessarily want them to. I just want us all to learn together how we can communicate better and respect one another so we can facilitate healthy sexual experiences, especially for teens and young adults.

During that phone call with my friend, we talked a lot about my sexual promiscuity when we were in college. Her impression was that I just had a high sex drive, that I was being care-free and having fun. She seemed surprised and somewhat saddened when I told her that actually wasn’t the case. I just didn’t know myself well enough, didn’t understand relationships enough, to make the right decisions. Given that my first sexual partner was someone that I was dating and who I was deeply in love with, I didn’t really grasp the correlation between love and sex. Desperate to feel that same emotional intimacy, that spiritual closeness, I found myself confusing it and conflating it with physical intimacy. I really didn’t have desire for the actual act of sex with most of the men I’ve been with. What I desired and hoped to obtain from sex was actually love and tenderness. As you might imagine, it took me a long time to understand and process the pain of never finding it.

This is one of the many reasons why we need to teach our children how to have these important conversations surrounding sex. The more prepared we make them, the easier it will be to talk about with their partner when the times comes. I wish I had been wise enough, brave enough, to ask more questions of my partners before having sex with them. Questions like: what does sex mean to you? where do you see our relationship going, if anywhere? do you have romantic feelings for me or are you only interested in a physical relationship? I always made the mistake of just assuming we were on the same page. Then I felt heartbroken and wronged upon discovering that wasn’t the case.

In addition, we need to emphasize that while no means no, only an enthusiastic, informed yes is true consent. Pressuring someone until they eventually give in is not consent. An obviously reluctant partner that hasn’t verbally said no is not consent. It is so important that we all work to improve society when it comes to its ideas and understanding of the complex issues surrounding sex. I only wish I could go back in time and share this new, deeper understanding with the young girl I once was. Instead I will try to help other young girls avoid my same mistakes.

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Seeking Redemption

Last night I dreamt about possibly the biggest mistake I ever made in my past. I woke up feeling weighed down by all those heavy memories. All morning I have been feeling ashamed and unworthy of redemption. When I think about terrible, selfish things I’ve done there are at least a handful of things that readily come to mind. Yet when I try to think of caring, kind, selfless acts, my mind goes blank. Am I really this awful person that I perceive myself to be? Or is my perception skewed?

I think most people make justifications and excuses for the wrong they’ve done. They allow these rationalizations to comfort their conscience. My mind tries to tell me that everyone makes mistakes, that I was young and naïve, that I would never want to hurt anyone. But I refuse these ideas outright. I feel at my core that I deserve condemnation for my actions, that if anyone knew me like I know myself, they would cast me out, and rightfully so.

Some people argue that altruism doesn’t really exist. Even kind acts are beneficial to the bearer. Yet most people, I imagine, still feel confident in their goodness after performing a good dead. I on the other hand, view the kind things I’ve done as others view their misdeeds. I minimize them. I explain them away. I tell myself that I’ve done these things out of my own self-interest. I deny any altruistic intentions.

What I’m left with is the guilt and blame of all the wrong I’ve done and none of the credit for anything decent in my past. Most people are shocked when they discover that I think so little of myself. “You are a good person,” they tell me, “You are so kind and compassionate!” But I shrink away from these reassurances. They don’t really know me, I tell myself. Then I feel even more guilty for deceiving them. It is a very lonely life, feeling unknown and unknowable.

I suppose there is really no way for me to truly know if the image I hold of myself is accurate. It might all come back to the grey areas I struggle so much with. Perhaps I am a bad, selfish person, but also a caring, loving one. Even so, I desperately want to atone for all the wrong that I have done, even though I am the only one who knows about a lot of it. I want to live a life that I can be proud of. I don’t want to keep lamenting these mistakes. I want to be freed from the sins of my past. I want redemption for myself, from myself.

I am grateful that I have the principles of yoga to guide me. Even though I feel a lot of the Yamas and Niyamas are out of my reach, beyond my capabilities, I still want to try to embody them. I want to become honest and upright, truthful and generous, thoughtful and helpful. I know that happiness lies within these virtues. I must believe that, regardless of my past failings, I am strong enough, I am intelligent enough, to change.

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