That’s How the Light Gets In

Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.

Today it is 23 months since Tony took his own life.  One year and 11 months ago, I sat on the concrete steps outside our apartment in San Diego.  It was the darkest night of the year, both literally and figuratively.  In many ways, it was the darkest night of my life.  I did not know, truly, how I would survive it.  It felt to me like there were no bells to ring.  No hope, no light, no life.  It was, I thought, the end of everything.

I was wrong.

Nearly two years later, I find myself in a strange place, emotionally speaking.  Strange, I say, because I’ve been struggling for weeks to put my finger on what it is that I’m feeling.  I keep having the sense that I am cracking open, but I don’t mean that in a bad way.  I feel raw and exposed, vulnerable and new.  This feeling has coincided with some significant life events – some that are meaningful in a way that I can easily identify, some that I can FEEL are profound although I don’t think I fully understand them just yet.

One is my new career.  I am finally doing something I love to do, every day, and getting paid for it.  That is huge, and it’s had a remarkable impact on my outlook.  For the most part, I wake up excited to work.  I am sleeping well and eating well.  I feel energetic and intellectually satisfied.  I feel creative.  It’s the first time in my whole life that I’ve had a job that left me feeling fulfilled.

Another is that I’m starting to achieve the balance I need between the writing that pays my rent and the writing I do for myself.  I started outlining a screenplay.  I’m finding time for blogging.  I’m also making time to read – something I haven’t done as much of as I’d like to since Tony died.

Friendship is another piece of the puzzle.  My relationships with the important people in my life feel healthier and deeper than they ever have.  I have several friends who have had a knack, in the past 23 months, of reaching out to me with such kindness that it overwhelms me.  I’ve reconnected with one of those friends recently, and his kindness got me thinking about kindness in general.

At the beginning of last year, not long after Tony died, I decided to perform acts of kindness on his birthday.  I knew I needed to do something that day to keep my mind off the fact that he was not there to celebrate the day, and never would be again.  Acts of kindness seemed like a natural thing to do in many ways, because Tony had such a hard time seeing kindness.  He was so disappointed, so much of the time, by his life and by the world.  On very rare occasions he would have moments when he’d see it, and when he did I used to tease him that he looked like the Grinch after his heart grew three sizes.  Imagining him like that makes my heart feel like it’s going to float out of my body, away into the sky.  I wish he’d had more of those experiences.

I wrote the other day about how the kindness of the people in my life has sustained me over the past two years.  Starting the night that Tony died, I have seen – over and over – how truly kind people can be.  The police officers, medical examiner and crisis counselor seem like miracles to me.  They gave me the worst news I’d ever heard in a way that makes it possible for me to be grateful to them.  The same is true of my co-workers, who held my hand and took me in and made it possible for me to work remotely for 22 months so I could be near my family.

I can hardly find words to talk about the kindness of my family and my friends.  They have loved me and buoyed me over and over again.  They have had a knack, many of them, for reaching out to me at just the right time.  They have written and spoken so many words of grace and love and kindness.  I have been cracked open by them again and again.

It is those cracks that have let the light in.  It is those cracks that have allowed me to feel the way I do, raw and vulnerable and open and… happy.  Yes, that’s the word.  I am happy, right now, in a way I haven’t been in a very long time.  That doesn’t mean I don’t miss Tony, because of course I do.  It doesn’t mean that things are perfect, because that’s just silly.  It means that I look at my life – at where I live and who I am and the people I care about – and I feel so overwhelmed with love that I think I might burst.

I didn’t do acts of kindness last year on December 21, because last year that day seemed unremittingly dark.  It seemed like a cave – a dark and dank place, dripping with tears.  It felt like a grave.  This year it doesn’t feel like that.  This year, I can look at it and see that as horrible as that date was in 2012, it was also a beginning.  It was that day that set me on a path I could not have anticipated.  It was the first crack, that day, and now – at last – the light is streaming in.

I hope that wherever you are in the world, you will join me on December 21st.  The holidays are an especially hard time for people who struggle with depression.  An act of kindness so small that it seems almost inconsequential to you could be exactly the ray of light that someone needs to find the strength to keep going.  Kindness is free.  Yes, you can do things that cost money if you choose to, but there are plenty of things that you can do that won’t cost a penny.  I will post some ideas and pictures over the next month.  I hope that if you do plan to participate, you’ll leave me a comment now (I would love to get people on all seven continents) and then let me know, later, what you did and how you felt about it.  Let’s turn on the lights.


We Are the Dreamers of Dreams

The first time I said “I want to be a writer,” I was seven years old. I’d just finished reading Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Reading that book was a rite of passage for me. It was the first real novel I ever read. I read a copy that belonged to my mother. I still remember its plain, dark blue cover, its slightly yellowed pages and its musty smell. I remember sitting near the window of the house we lived in, on Mayflower Street in Plymouth, with the sun splashed across me and the book, crying bitter angry tears when Beth died. I identified so strongly with Jo that it was like I’d lost my own little sister – and I have two of them, so putting myself in her grieving shoes was easy. Even as I cried, I felt a sort of wonder that I could be weeping over the death of someone I didn’t know. A book had never done that to me before.

As much as I loved the rest of the book, the ending – when Professor Bhaer comes to deliver Jo’s manuscript to her – was a revelation to me. Even though I knew Jo was a writer, I hadn’t made the connection between Jo and Louisa May Alcott. Too inexperienced a reader, I suppose, even though I was a voracious one. I can still feel the thrill that swept through my body as I looked at the book in my hands and thought, “THIS is the book she wrote!” The next thought came just as quickly: I want to be a writer. Then I did something that I’ve done over and over again, when I’ve finished reading a book that gets under my skin in some way. I clutched the book to my chest. I still do it – not with every book, but when it’s one I’ve loved, one that cuts me to the quick? I do it.

In the years following that first reading of “Little Women,” I wrote a lot. I wrote poems, short stories, plays. Writing a novel still seemed too intimidating to me. But gradually, my writing slowed. I kept a journal sporadically, and I always loved writing, but I wrote less. I realize now that my journal-keeping has been, in the past, strongly linked to how I felt about my life in general. I could write about painful things, but if they got too painful or if I didn’t want to examine them too closely, I stopped writing.

The second time I said, “I want to be a writer” I was in my late twenties. I had just started a new job, and my co-worker Susanne was a writer. She wrote short stories and had a novel in progress, I think. She talked about it a lot, and her passion for it made me remember how much I loved writing. I pulled out an old copy of Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” (to this day, still my favorite book about writing EVER) and read it. I started doing daily writing exercises. I did journal entries and free writes. I wrote terrible short stories. Then I started writing better short stories. My friend Julie started a magazine and I wrote film and book reviews for her, and a piece about 9/11. I lost my job and picked up a couple of freelance writing gigs for local non-profit groups. I started a novel.

I met Tony in June of 2003. He had just written his first screenplay and was getting started on his second. At the beginning, he helped clarify that voice inside of me. He had the same passion for writing that I had. We moved to San Diego. When we wrote our first screenplay together we drafted it in shifts, each of us sitting at the computer for thirty minutes and seeing how far we could get. There were particular characters I remember being able to hear very clearly. We developed a writing process that worked for us as a team.

When Tony quit his job to write full time, it seemed like the right thing for both of us. Even though his paranoia was not yet at the terrifying level that it would later reach, he still had a hard time interacting with people. I pushed to the back of my mind any idea that I was giving up my dream of writing by letting him pursue his. As much as I wanted to write, his self-esteem was tied to being able to do enough to let us both make it as screenwriters. I wrote less and less. I still did the overwhelming majority of the outlining and character development, and I turned into a ruthlessly efficient editor. But when it came to the meaty part of screenwriting, I took a back seat to Tony.

As Tony’s illness worsened, I stopped keeping a journal. I had no desire to examine my life, nor was I able to admit how unhappy I was. I did little bits of writing here and there, but I wasn’t living as if I wanted to be a writer. I was living to survive.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that the day after Tony died I picked up a notebook and brought it with me when I left our apartment for the last time. I started keeping a journal again. I started this blog. I wrote a novel last November. In spite of all that, though, I still wasn’t saying those words again. I was still holding back. I was working the same day job I’d worked all those years while Tony pursued his dream of writing, and mine languished.

The third time I said “I want to be a writer” I said those words with a vengeance. I am saying them every day. I said those words to myself when my boss gave me an ultimatum about moving back to San Diego. I said them when I got a freelance job writing an ebook. I said them when I told my boss, at the end of last month, that I would not be moving back to San Diego. I told him that I was going to be a writer.

Today is my last full day working at Primary Funding, the company I’ve worked for since December of 2003. I’ll be on call for another month to answer questions and help them with the transition, but as of tomorrow I am a full-time freelance writer. In the past three weeks or so I have written 6 short ebooks and a magazine article, and I am halfway through ghostwriting a novel. I have several sources of steady work, and although I imagine it will take me a while to earn the kind of money I was earning before, I am finally – FINALLY – being paid to do work I love. It’s been 39 years since I first said those words to myself, and at last my dream is on the front burner, on high heat. My heart is about to explode.

You guys. I AM A WRITER.

It was not meant for me

Do you remember two weeks ago when I wrote about crushing eggshells? And how I said that if someone couldn’t handle a little eggshell-crushing, they weren’t meant for me, and I was not meant for them?

That was the truth.

I alluded in that post to a situation that had arisen with someone I care about. I told you that I’d told him what I needed and that it hadn’t scared him away. That was true at the time, I thought, and yet, it is also true that the relationship is now over. He didn’t mention it, but while I think the main culprits are distance and logistics, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the eggshell-crushing played a small role, too.

This is when the resolution gets put to the test, because it’s hard to lose someone you care about. The good thing, though, about having had my entire life blow up at the end of 2012, is that in the end, it has made it much easier to put things in perspective.

I read this quote, attributed to Buddha, yesterday:

In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

It’s that last one that’s the hardest for me. It always has been hard. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but in the past my inability to let go of things not meant for me has kept me in relationships that weren’t making me happy, jobs that I hated, situations that just were not good for me. Over and over, I’ve made that mistake. I have held on too hard, put my own needs too low on my list of priorities, and endured treatment that would have sent someone with higher self-esteem running for the hills.

The change I can see in myself is this: there have been times that, on the verge of a breakup, I’ve tried to convince someone to be with me. I don’t know why I felt the need to do that, but I did. Not enough confidence in my own worth, I suppose, or fear of being alone. This time, I haven’t done that. I haven’t even WANTED to do it. I have many, many feels, don’t get me wrong. I am sad and disappointed and a lot of other things. I have things I want to say to him. But I haven’t, not even for a second, been tempted to try to convince him that he was wrong to end it. Why? Because I don’t want to be with anybody who’s not ass-over-teakettle for me. I’ve been down that road before and I didn’t like it the first time.

I wouldn’t say I’ve let go of it, not yet, but I have accepted that it was not meant for me. That he and I, we were not meant for each other. If we had been, this would not have happened. I don’t know how graceful I am at the moment, but even though I am sad, I am not undone. Even though I am disappointed, I know that letting go is the right thing to do.

I’m picking a new road.

Some Days It Feels Brand New

Today is a hard day.  I had a moment in the shower, this morning, when I thought “Tony killed himself” and it was like I was hearing it for the first time.  As a result, I feel shaky and sad and angry and want nothing more than to just crawl into bed and put my head under the covers and hide.  Grief is like that.  It blindsides you.  You think you’ve reached a certain place – maybe not acceptance, not yet – but a place where you can deal with what’s happened.  Then a day like today comes along and shows me how very far I still have to go.  Acceptance is a distant country.  Impossible to chart the distance from where I am to where it is; impossible to know how or when or even IF I will get there.  Everything, today, feels impossible.  I am here, where I am.  I am upright, and breathing.  Maybe that’s all I can really ask of myself.   

Maybe I Need a Non-fiction Life

I started reading very early, at the age of four, and my first and most enduring love was fiction.  I remember, vividly, my experiences reading certain books for the first time.  I remember reading Little Women when I was seven, and the intense pleasure/pain of realizing, through Jo, that people wrote fiction; that I could write it, if I wanted to; and that fiction could create real emotion.  Oh, how I cried when Beth died.  Words did that.  Words made me cry over the death of someone I didn’t know.  But I did know her.  Louisa May Alcott introduced her to me, and because I identified so strongly with Jo, Beth was my little sister, too.  I have two younger sisters.  Fiction taught me about empathy.  Fiction taught me about life. 

When I was twelve I read Gone with the Wind.  I was in the seventh grade, and my teacher recommended it to me for a book report.  I remember thinking, this book is so BIG; can I really finish it in time?  And then I remember staying up, latelate into the night, devouring the story of Scarlett and Rhett and Melanie and milquetoast Ashley.  Even at twelve I couldn’t understand what Scarlett saw in him. 

I have met and fallen in love with Alice and the Mad Hatter, Nancy Drew, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Peter Lake and Beverly Penn, Prospero and Beatrice and Benedick and Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen and Jack Reacher and Mosey Slocumb and so many more.  Too many to count. 

Then there are the characters I have created on my own, and co-created with Tony.  Manny, the perfectionist cannibal chef.  Delilah Macintosh, the jilted beauty queen who takes up boxing in Fighting Belle.  Leon, a disgruntled elf in Santa’s workshop.  Dana and Teddy, a talk show host and her husband working their way through infidelity.  Eugene Bloom, a guilt-ridden shut-in who can’t forgive himself for his wife’s death.  So many of them, and all so real to me that I would instantly recognize them if I ran into them on the street.

So why, since Tony died, have I barely been able to touch fiction?  I read a couple of Janet Evanovich books – light, easy.  I read a kids’ book my sister Stephanie loaned me.  But for the most part, fiction and I have a strange relationship right now.  I am reading right now, simultaneously, a book called Mindsight about how we can actually train our brains to react differently; Dr. Brene Brown’s astonishing I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t); and The Omnivore’s Dilemma

It’s not just books, either.  I think I have watched only two films since Tony died, all the way through.  I watched Kiki’s Delivery Service with my niece and nephew; and I watched Les Miserables.  And now that I think of it, I didn’t watch Les Miserables all the way through; I left the room and did not watch Javert’s suicide.  There were a few times I put on a movie in the background because I needed some noise to be able to get to sleep; but I didn’t really watch those. 

It bothers me, this aversion to fiction.  I’ve been wondering why it is, and I’ve said a few times that maybe it was because I didn’t need any invented drama, having had such a surplus of it in my own life lately.  But tonight, in therapy, I said the six words that are the title of this post.  Maybe I need a non-fiction life.

As soon as I said them, I knew it was true.  I need a non-fiction life right now.  I do.  As much as I loved Tony, so much of what we presented to the world was a fiction.  We were both participants, authors of that fiction.  We pretended everything was okay.  He pretended not to be afraid; I pretended not to know he was afraid, and not to be afraid, myself.  When people asked me how he was, he was great, perfect, the best husband anyone ever had, ever.  He loved me!  He got up and did the laundry every week on Saturday.  He worked harder than anybody I knew.  I’m not saying those were lies; no, not that.  Those things are all true, as far as they go.  Tony did love me.  I know he did.  He was the best husband he knew how to be.  He did get up and do the laundry ever Saturday; but the reason he did was because he didn’t – not really – trust me not to ruin his clothes.  He was very anxious about his clothes.  I don’t know what he thought I was going to do to them, his jeans and tee shirts and socks and things, but it was part of the fear that enveloped him.  He did work hard; but the reason he did is because he was unable to sit still, unable to relax, unable to rest because if he sat still, might not the fears catch up with him?  I didn’t know that then, couldn’t put it into words, but I know it now.  We pasted a fiction over the truth of our lives – the scary, painful, naked truth of it – and we sold it to the world like it was one of our screenplays.  And then when we were alone together, most of what we talked about was related to our scripts.  To people that we created, out of whole cloth, the same way we created ourselves.  We created ourselves.

I can’t do that now.  I can’t pretend.  If I am scared, I say I’m scared.  If I am sad, I say I’m sad.  I went through a brief period where I was tap-dancing on the phone with friends, acting almost manically cheerful.  I’m not doing that now.  I was with friends in San Diego, and I cried with them.  I told them I cry every day.  That’s true, I do.  I told them how guilty I feel; how horrified I still am that Tony killed himself.  I am.  Horrified.  Every single day.  I talked about therapy.  I talked about the medication I’m taking.  I talked about my gratitude and my fear.  I am still afraid.  I don’t know where the path I am on leads.  That scares me so much it makes my stomach hurt.  I feel strongly that I am where I am, on this path at this place in my scary life, for a reason.  That doesn’t make it less scary.  I feel vulnerable, stripped naked and hurting, and instead of trying to pretend that’s not my reality, I am putting it into words and laying it out for anybody who wants to know about it to read.  I am taking the words, the very same ones, that I used to write fiction and create characters and put words into their mouths, and I am flaying myself with them.  I am dissecting myself.  I am showing you, all of you, each piece.  I am naming each one: this, here, is my fear.  This is my heart, broken.  This is my grief that my husband is dead.  This is my guilt that he’s dead because of me.  This is my relief that I am no longer living on the edge of a cliff.  This is my new guilt, because how can I feel relieved?  This is my judgment of myself.  This is my rage at Tony.  This is my gratitude for the people who helped me when he died, and who are helping me now, every day.  This is my determination, to find the true purpose of my life and to put all of these raw stripped pieces back together into a new whole, a new non-fictional Aimee who is somehow, in spite of everything, exactly who she is supposed to be.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Sunday I wrote about the script Tony left open for me.  Today I want to talk about the movie made from that script, and the interpretation that I am applying to my own life. 

The six words “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” are from a poem by Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

The film, for those who don’t know, is about a company called Lacuna that can erase a person from another person’s memory.  After a painful breakup, Clementine has Joel erased from her mind and when he finds out, he retaliates and begins to have her erased.  But somehow, the process of erasure – the gradual eradication of all the memories, good and bad – makes him fall in love with her all over again.  At that point the movie becomes a race through Joel’s mind, as he tries desperately to find a place to hide his precious memories before they are all, irretrievably, gone.

His effort fails, and his memory of her is gone.  Or is it?  At the end of the process, as his memory of meeting her blows away in the Montauk breezes, she whispers to him something she never said in life: Meet me in Montauk.  The next morning he awakens, ditches work for reasons he doesn’t understand, and takes the train to Montauk.  And there, he meets (or re-meets) Clementine.

I love this film so much, because to me the message is that love, even when it hurts, is worth it.  That you can’t have the good parts of another person without accepting the flawed parts too.  We can close ourselves off to hurt, but if we do that, we are also shutting out the possibility of joy. 

I could shut out my memories of Tony, good and bad, in an effort to heal myself.  I have struggled to even remember the good times.  The day we met online.  Our first conversation, when he charmed me and made me laugh with his spot-on impression of Cary Grant, with whom he shared a birthday.  Our first date. Our first kiss.  Our drive cross-country, reading Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” out loud and listening to the one CD we had with us.  Unbeknownst to me, he’d kept Dar Williams’ “The Beauty of the Rain” unpacked because he knew I loved her music, and forevermore that CD will be the soundtrack of our trip.  Because if I remember those good times, I also have to remember the frightening meltdown he had in Laramie, Wyoming when our trailer hit a speed bump, hard.  I have to remember the times that he was in such a dark place I was afraid he would never come out.  The times he struggled with his ability to trust other people, or wanted to stay away from our friends.  The times we fought and his angry words hurt me, and mine hurt him back. 

In the end, I don’t want to forget the good times.  I don’t even want to forget the bad times, not really.  They were part of our story.  They are.  They always will be.  So my decision regarding that script is to hold it in my heart as an expression of love for me.  To imagine that his thoughts were of me, that he was asking me not to forget him.  Not to let go of any of the memories.  To accept that, although he was choosing to write a tragic end for our love story, it is still a love story.