“This poem is the poem I am writing because we aren’t speaking,
and it is making my heart hurt so bad, it is all I
can do just to get up off the floor sometimes.” ~Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
What I don’t do
I’d rather break
all my bones
than feel this.
What I don’t do
is eat enough.
What I don’t do
What I don’t do
I am cracked
down the middle, heart
I can’t name or catch,
in my body is flooding
and I can’t make it stop.
Tell me, where’s the pill for this?
The fifth drink
of rum that burns enough
to chase out the pain.
Tell me, where’s the tourniquet for this?
The blackout drunk promise
of forgetting, undoing
all the tangles in my soul,
so that something (anything)
Tell me, how to stop drowning
in my own skin. Tell me
how to learn to breathe
something other than grief.
I matter. Tell me
I mean something. Tell me
you remember my name
even on days
you can’t speak it.
This is what it feels like:
the slow tick
of a bomb in my stomach,
the scald of being
lit on fire from the inside,
but nobody sees it.
The truth is
I can’t remember the last time
I said I was fine
and actually meant it.
The truth is
I feel like an actor
that seem right,
hitting every mark
like a champion,
a consummate professional
The truth is
I can’t even tell where
it hurts, because
all of me is howling,
of mourning, the steel trap
of this secret.
This morning, I wondered
a terrible thing,
but like everything else,
I couldn’t stop it:
would it matter to you
if I died? Would
you miss me?
What I don’t do
Within a certain realm, my mother could fix anything. A ripped seam. A tangled necklace. My unruly hair. And, on numerous occasions, me. There, her tools were a kind of magic that doesn’t fall easily into words. Often, it was simply a look different from any other and either a raised eyebrow or a simple question.
Then, she would listen. Sometimes, she would shake her head. Sometimes, she would tell me I was an idiot. Other times, still, she would rage at whomever or whatever had caused her baby girl a headache. Over the years, the list of offenders grew long, as lists do, but they’re all just ghosts in this story. What matters – what mattered – was the listening. The being present and invested in the kind of way that, maybe, only a mother can be – one who has seen and loved since the beginning.
Last year, I taught myself how to hem, so that I could remove the sleeves of a T-shirt that are too constricting to be anything but annoying. My stiches, though small, were uneven and somewhat veering. This, like all skills, is something that comes with time. Like a number of things, it’s something I’ve had to reacquaint myself with in the wake of my mother’s death.
It’s been nearly four years, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. People, well-meaning, will lie directly to your face with the shiniest kindness. They will say it gets better, but it doesn’t. It just gets different. It is, as best as I can tell, the emotional equivalent of losing a limb. Something essential that was there all your life is gone. And nothing can replace what’s missing. You just learn to live, to cope, without it.
One of the many things she taught me, though, was the importance of listening. Not just hearing the words and waiting to get your say in. But attending to the sentences and the feelings behind them, being present in that moment, and really communicating. So many people are simply there, but not there. So many people hear, but do not hear. You can blame all kinds of things for affecting the way we do, and do not, communicate: the internet, cellphones, texting. In a world where communication is often instant, words are sometimes consumed as fast food. And it really is all too easy to stop putting in the effort, to stop being fully present, and to stop paying attention to what’s being said – and, perhaps, what’s not being said. It takes effort, and in this everything-on-demand world, people have often grown lazy – careless with our attention and reckless with our inattention.
But I am, thanks to my mother, an excellent listener. I am a better listener than I am a talker, unless I trust you without hesitation. Or there’s tequila involved. Even then, I can still be guarded. Most people do not realize this. Most people are fooled by a wide smile and a well-timed joke. But that’s another thing my mom taught me: people see what they want to see. People believe what they want to believe. And like creating an amazing Halloween costume, it is the details that matter, that fill out the picture. (My mother, it should be noted, once handstitched a Batgirl costume for me, complete with utility belt. Unfortunately, this was the summer I first moved south, and the particular town we lived in didn’t trick-or-treat. That was only discovered after knocking on several houses and the occupants giving seven-year-old me quizzical looks, as if I was a strangely dressed beggar. All I succeeded in getting that evening was…an apple. I’m still mad.)
There is a long-running joke in my family that I cannot sew to save my life. As a kid, I was fascinating by sewing. I would often steal an old shirt of my father’s to practice on, stitching on a pocket (I don’t know why I thought a pocket would be cool; kids are weird). I am certain it never quite resembled a pocket at all. But I like the idea of patching up, of creating, of somehow taking something and making it better.
As you might already suspect, I get that from my mother. If she could fix it, she would. If she could make it better, she did. If she could help, she helped. And that is a gift she gave me that, perhaps until recently, I didn’t quite understand. I am not one to sit idly by when someone is hurting or having a hard time. I am not a sidelines person. I’m in the game. I jump in, full-hearted, arms open. I will always hug you. And I don’t know how to love in small measures, because love is not a small thing. It’s a miracle made of starlight and bone, blood and madness, skin and madness. She taught me, by example, that it is something you fight for, no matter what. And on days where I need reminding of that, on days where I need more strength that I can find within myself, I wear her opal ring (borrowing it only). Because it reminds me of everything she was, everything she went through and strove for, never letting life make her jaded and bitter. Never letting her doubt herself or her own heart, even when it would’ve been all too easy to.
I suppose, in a way, my mother is still working her magic. It isn’t just in the things she left behind or the skills she taught me. It’s the way in which she lives in my memory, woven like thread into each moment. She showed me how to listen, how to love, and how to take a stand.
I can’t hear her voice, anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still listening.
My body was a lit match
in the wind when you
last called me dangerous.
I was a caged river, longing
for a flood, reckless
within acceptable boundaries.
What I wanted was an invitation,
the word yes waiting
on your tongue
for me to find it, hands
reborn electric, each finger
a lightning strike
of don’t stop
and just let go.
But I dare you
to imagine me now,
free and brazenly unfinished,
lungs ready to shout
toward heaven, my holy
heart a single shade of scarlet,
my hips a reminder
of how good it feels
to want, then give,
Every possible spark
is ours, if you whisper
my name on your knees,
say please, say like this,
say right there, say
what you want,
and I will show you
the full fire
and try me,
I’m right here—
it’s time for you to come.
We live in a world that is constantly trying to keep us small. We’re supposed to be and do this. We’re supposed to like this, not that. We’re supposed to stay inside the lines, not rock the boat. Don’t be too weird. Don’t stick out too much.
We’re often told that to be a certain thing (woman, man, writer, father, husband, wife, etc.) that we must do x, y, and z. Otherwise, it’s wrong. Otherwise, you won’t fit in (whatever that means).
But I never wanted any of that. I never wanted to fit in. Good or bad, weird or not, I always just wanted to be me. I’m not saying that is always an easy thing. It’s not. I remember, in middle school, being criticized for the clothes I wore. I liked a shirt, so I wore it. A girl in class said to me, “Why do you dress like that? You should get some overalls, like [redacted].”
Yes, darlings, there was a point in time in which overalls were all the rage. And they were just…not my thing. I remember looking this girl in the eye and saying, “But I don’t like them. I like what I have on.” From that moment on, that girl hated me. Actively and with gusto. Why? Who knows. Kids are weird and often cruel.
But maybe it was because I wouldn’t conform. Maybe it was because I didn’t bend to her expectations. Maybe she was insecure. It doesn’t matter. All throughout life, people will insist with a crazed, righteous fervor that you need to be a predetermined way. That you need to present yourself within these lines and walk in these parameters.
Those people are wrong. Don’t let them in your head. And if they sneak in, kick them out. Because there’s only one you, and you’ve only got one life. Don’t spend it trying to please the world. Don’t spend it trying to be someone else. Or someone version of yourself. Dress up if you feel like it, but never to hide who you are.
Today, Prince died. A mad musical talent. A force a nature. A brilliant everything. Prince, a man who was once a symbol, never uttered a false note in his life—musically and personally. Whenever he went, there he was. Effortlessly cool, infinitely sexy, and remarkably wonderful. His talent is too far-reaching and brilliant to comprehend, sometimes. He pushed boundaries and made stunning art.
Like Bowie, he was one of those rare people who made it cool to be weird. There was a magic in his authenticity, in his quiet coolness. He was sexy, and he wrote about sex in a way that was appealing—and dirty as hell—but it was never offensive, never alarming. Each song was a seduction, and we were all very much here for it.
It takes courage to be who you are. Today, we lost a musician whose equal we may never see. But with his death, we also lost that symbol of fearlessness. Prince was the epitome of not giving a fuck. He was exactly who he was, and it was beneath him to even consider apologizing for it. He made art his way. He brought spectacle and dancing. He brought glitter. He lived his life on his terms, and the world bent around him in awe. There was no expecting him to tone it down or change.
He was simply Prince. Period. End of story. Full stop. And man, there’s something infinitely appealing, magical, and sexy about that. About a person whose Give a Damn is not broken, but absent.
It’s important, in this fast food society, to have remembers that it’s okay to be exactly who we are. Not just okay, but wonderful. And when someone like Prince (and Bowie) die, there’s an obvious loss. He won’t have a new song. We won’t get to see him in concert. Hell, we won’t get to make out with him. Or borrow his shoes.
And we lose the person we sometimes look to, who reminds us, “Just be yourself. Screw the world. Don’t pay any mind to what other people think.” It’s a hard loss, because of the way society strives to keep us small and reasonable.
But today, for me, a curious thing happened when I heard about Prince. Yes, I was shocked. I was sad. (I mean, he and Bowie always seemed so Other in the best way, immortal and untouchable.) But what I also felt was a curious sense of defiance. That rebel streak that crops up just often enough to remind me to be myself, even when people don’t always get it. Even when there’s side eye and whispers.
This surge of defiance caught me by surprise, because it was exceptionally fierce.
I am always myself, but sometimes quietly so. And you know what? No more of that. Quiet is for church and funerals, and since I’m not holy and I’m not dead, enough of that. I’ve always lived my life by my own compass, but what if that goes a step further? Live it out loud just a little more?
I don’t belong in a box. And I refuse to live in one. I’m a geek who curses. A lady who loves tequila and rum. A writer who thinks like a poet first, always. A woman who loves without question or concern. A friend who does not waver. A person so full of hope that it’s almost absurd.
But you’ll never catch me apologizing for who I am. So, do me a favor? Don’t you apologize for who you are, either. Don’t apologize for what you want in life. Don’t apologize for what you enjoy. (There is no guilty pleasure. Pleasure is pleasure. Enjoy it. This goes for all things.) Don’t apologize for who you love. Don’t apologize for loving, period. Don’t apologize for the way you dress, how loud you laugh, or talking about the things that you are passionate about.
Light up, darlings. No one else can stand where you’ve been, where you are, and where you will be. And you owe it to yourself to show yourself to the world, to be freely you.
Tomorrow, I will be wearing purple. It’s my favorite color. As a child, I claimed to be from the Planet Purple. While I can neither confirm nor deny that possibility, I choose to honor Prince. I choose to honor a man who could seduce the world without a word, in just a look. A man who played every instrument flawlessly, as if it was like breathing. A man who commanded every room he walked into just by being in it.
To quote my dear friend Heather: stay weird, be kind.❤
That’s what matters to me. I don’t care what you do for a living. I don’t care if there are dishes in your sink. I don’t care if your car is new. I don’t care if you haven’t been vacation in years. I don’t care what brand of shoes you buy. I don’t care if your favorite jeans have holes in the knees. I don’t care if you own your house or rent. And I don’t care about what’s in your bank account.
Are you kind?
That matters to me.
You’re not your job or your savings. You’re not your past. You’re not your mistakes, old wounds, or those given to you by your parents. You’re not who you were a year ago. You’re also not the status of your relationship—be it single, married, separated, or divorced. You’re no less amazing if you’ve never been in love. You’re no less wonderful if you’ve been in love and screwed it up. You’re not the amount of success you’ve had, financial or personal. You’re not your failed attempts or those you never took.
Are you kind?
That is really the simplest measure of a person. Notice I didn’t ask, “Are you good?” Because what is good? Who is good all the time? I am not interested in goodness, because people can be good for all kinds of reasons—for the sake of the status quo, saving face, not tipping the apple cart. But kindness is a curious thing. It’s also a beautiful thing. It costs nothing, but means everything.
I remember kindnesses, big and small.
A few years ago, I’d made plans with a friend to meet up one morning. I missed the message he’d left, saying he couldn’t hang out. Realizing I didn’t get the message, he then showed up anyway, because he didn’t want me to be upset. It was very inconvenient for him, but there he was, apologizing because he could only stay a few minutes. I remember hugging him tightly and saying, “But you showed up.”
That mattered. It still matters.
Another time, my best friend brought me hot chocolate at work. I’d been having a bad day. Okay, week. Okay, month. Look, it had been a challenging series of unfortunate events. And she texted me to ask if I could come out into the parking lot. There she was, with hot chocolate on a cold day.
Yesterday, a really busy friend of mine dropped everything to listen to me, as I was having a mini-meltdown and plague of self-doubt. This girl is up to her eyeballs in work, trying her best to do her best, and she stopped to check in and listen. It cost nothing, but it meant the world to me. Giving someone time and attention won’t dent your savings. But it will touch someone’s heart. Trust me.
Money might make life easier. That’s true. But you’re not a dollar sign. You’re flesh and blood, dreams and hope, passion and promise. You’re not a career. You’re not how broken you are. You’re not what you’ve made or didn’t make. You’re not what you’ve left behind or what you’re about to leave behind. You’re not who you’ve loved. You’re not who loved you. You’re not even those instances in which you did not love.
You cannot be summed up so neatly. You cannot be defined so easily. You are not a straight line, and you cannot be boxed in.
Tell me: are you kind? Tell me: do you love?
Good. Now, show those things to the world.
The world needs more kindness and more love.
Start with being kind and loving toward yourself. Then extend that to others.
Make a mess.
No, I mean it. If you’re not making a mess, if your pulse doesn’t race and your breath doesn’t catch it your throat, you’re only half alive. That’s cliché, I know. It’s something people say. But it’s also true. You get one life. You get one now. You get to live. That’s a privilege.
So, live. So, love. Stop conjuring up all the reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t. Stop caging yourself by way of other people’s expectations. It is your life. This is your story. Stop letting other people tell it.
Forget the script, forget all the reasons why not, push aside every pretense.
Make a mess. Go out dancing. Have margaritas on the porch and talk until 3 am. Kiss until you can’t feel anything beyond the way your lips have swelled. Make someone laugh until both your sides hurt. You weren’t born to take the easy way, to live or love timidly. You weren’t created, a miracle of bone and passion, just to take one breath after another. Tape up your hands, if you have to. Throw the first punch. Speak your truth. Don’t flinch. Square your shoulders. Wait for the reaction.
Then, ignore it.
Make a mess. Cross a line. Change your life. Do worry about polish or neat. Do not pay any mind to what other people are going to think. You are not a coward. And you are not simply the sum of all your past mistakes. The human heart is a miracle, not a math problem. It wants you to smile, dance in the rain, sing karaoke (possibly badly), make out in a car alongside the highway. Honor the holiness of your passions, the way your heart leans. It heart is a wild thing, all instinct and affections.
Let it out. Let it lead. Let it show you what might be, not what has been and not what is. Imagine it. Entertain the idea that everything can change for the better—but only if you’re brave enough.
Only if you let yourself get messy.
Be you. Not the you who pays the bills and goes to work. Forget that you for a moment. That you gets to take the lead too often. Be the you who says fuck the rules, and goes after what you want. Be the you who cuts class or plays hooky and spend the day with a person you love. Allow yourself the space to make absolute chaos, because without chaos, nothing changes.
This universe was nothing more than dust, once. You were nothing more than dust, too.
You only get one life, darlings.
Dare to make a mess of it.
*Title taken from a Mary Oliver poem, “Wild Geese.”
The other week, a friend I haven’t seen in a while wanted to hang out. The friend in question was supposed to get back to me, and then did not. The lack of response, for whatever reason, was deliberate. There was no tragic accident. It wasn’t even an incident of ghosting. It was basically, “Oops, something better came along.”
You know this kind of person. The one who—when you make plans—always gives you a tentative, “Maybe.” He or she waits for something better to come along or decides to take a nap instead. But then just…says nothing.
Remember Lucy with the football in Charlie Brown? Well, instead of pulling the football away at the last minute (Lucy, you suck; Charlie probably needs therapy for his trust issues now), Lucy vanishes—football and all. And there you are wondering what, exactly, happened.
I never make plans unless I can keep them. I think one of the most important things you can give someone is your time. That’s it: you show up. You call. You write a letter. You make room for someone.
This incident with my friend left me wondering if I’d ever see them again. This happens a lot in life, doesn’t it? Too much time passes and it seems like things are weird. Or whatever. There are a million excuses why not. There always are. (Notice I did not say reasons. Reasons are excuses are not the same thing.)
I started thinking about my mom after this. The day she died, I didn’t wake up thinking that it was the last time I was going to see her. I mean, on some level, you know that it’s soon—but not down to the minute. There’s a part that always hopes, always leans toward the only thing it can: delay.
But she’s gone. And sick or not, people are die. I could choke on a pretzel (ice cream, I will point out, would never threaten my life…just my waistline). I could trip on the stairs. This next breath might be my last. So, old or not, sick or not—nothing is certain. I learned that in the hardest way imaginable, once my mom got since. And again, when she died.
Nothing is certain.
Scary, right? Good. It should be. Because we walk through life too brazenly, sometimes, too wrapped up in a tomorrow that might not show up. We operate under the premise that we’ll wake up tomorrow, because it’s easier, safer. It’s more manageable to assume.
But what if I never see you again? What if you never see me again? What if…
You get the point.
Point is, I’ve been thinking about this pretty hard, lately. The incident with the friend made me think about another friend—someone I haven’t seen or spoken to in entirely too long. Someone who I pick up the phone to call or text, but just…don’t. There are reasons. You don’t get to know them. Hell, some days when I am thinking like this, even I don’t know them. Because what if…
I hate the idea of never seeing someone again. I mean, sure there are certain people I hope I never see ever. But we’re not talking about those. (And sweet fancy Moses, I always seem to run into them. Everywhere. Like an awful game of Where’s Waldo?)
What keeps us from reaching out to someone most often? It’s fear. Fear that they’ll be cold. Fear that they won’t answer. Fear that they will. It’s always an act of courage, reaching out after a long time. Or reaching out after an argument. Or whatever.
But think about it. Think about who that person is for you, and ask yourself: what if I never see you again?
What do you feel? How do you feel? Be honest. Really honest, too—nothing superficial. Life’s too short for that.
Now, take those feelings and put them into action. Because you really never know, darlings. And I’ll tell you a secret, okay? Calling, text, Facebook-ing? It might be scary. But it’s alright to be scared. That’s how you know you’re being brave.