“You don’t look like you read comics.”
“You don’t look like you know how to fish.”
“You don’t look like you know how to change a tire.”
“You don’t look like you’d enjoy sci-fi.”
Not geeky enough, not tough enough, not savvy enough, and again, not geeky enough. It’s remarkable (not in a good way) how often these things get said to me. There are endless variations, each more nauseating than the last. Because, apparently, I’m too girly looking to like fishing – and too pretty to know how to change a tire. As if authenticity is somehow only found in outward appearance, and I seemingly do not warrant all the checkmarks on a predetermined checklist.
The other day, I was reminded about the assumptions people feel entitled to make based on appearance and gender. For years, people have assumed that I’m less capable or even incapable of certain things. Why? Well, I’m a woman. I take care of my appearance. I do wear makeup when I go out. Heels happen often. These are just things I like – they’re not the sum of who I am. You can argue that I’m performing my gender – and maybe I am. But my gender doesn’t prohibit me from wearing sweatpants and an old T-shirt on the weekends, when I’m being lazy. Does that mean I’m suddenly more capable of changing a tire, if I look less like a girl? Does my lipstick somehow mean I can’t bait a hook? Does wearing my glasses, instead of my contacts, means I’m more of a geek?
Because, if so, I missed the damn memo. Here’s the dangerous thing about me: I wasn’t raised to believe in limits based on the fact that I have breasts and a uterus. I don’t get the vapors. I don’t faint at the sight of blood. And if you try and steal my TARDIS apron, I will cut you.
I find there’s a certain amount of entitlement when someone walks up to another person (sometimes literally) and says, “You don’t look like you [fill in the blank].” You don’t look like you bake. You don’t look like you read. You don’t look like a librarian. (Translation: You don’t fit into this box neatly, so break out the confusion, torches, and pitchforks.)
There are people who simply refuse to learn that whole, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And it boggles my mind, while offending me greatly. I find that, as a woman, this kind of phenomenon happens to me a lot. So, if I’m not walking around performing all the aspects of my personality, somehow my likes are confusing to others.
The thing about identity is that you can’t see it, like you can hair color or eye color (and even then, my brown eyes don’t make me a certain way; they’re just an observable aspect of my genetics). There’s also no standard for identity. You are what you are. You like what you like.
I’m technology inclined, a wonderful cook, and an average seamstress. Meaning, I can most likely fix a setting on your cell phone, make you a delicious meal, and sew on a button that’s fallen off. But you can’t tell that by looking at me. You can’t discern skills by sight anymore than you can discern what a person enjoys.
I’m not going to lie: I’ve been fairly pissed off about this for the past few days. It was assumed that I simply couldn’t like a certain thing, because I appear too feminine. And I just about blew a gasket. Total, full-on Hulk Ali SMASH. Because…no. Don’t you dare try to put me in some kind of box, because you feel like it. I don’t live in labels. I don’t live inside the lines pretty much ever. And making assumptions about people is really just insane. Nobody gets to define me expect me.
Don’t let anyone define you, either.
This is how it starts:
you dream she is a witch,
all dirt and bone, only secrets
in her smile. You watch as she
dances and imagine the flames,
her heartbeat like scraps of dry wood
burning. You think of the ocean next,
how you’ve seen her in its mist,
early morning without a word
of clothing on – just that unbound look
and those eyes, dark and deep
like a memory
you could never let go of.
Her love is a red song
you hear as a spell, kisses cast
like chants, stones overturning
in her wake – circles breaking
and broken, leaving new sunlight
behind and ahead. This is her magic,
heart like a forest
full of wolves, howling, she leaves
a new beginning on your doorstep,
no questions asked – the challenge
is simple, achingly honest:
do you take it? Do you dare
let the witch in?
My first solid memory of Robin Williams is seeing Aladdin in the movie theater with my family and my oldest friend’s family. It was a preview showing, and I remember thinking that it meant we didn’t get to see the whole movie, so I excitedly told Mandy, “And when it comes out in the theater for real, it’ll be even longer.” You’ve never seen a momma give a kid the “Oh, honey no” look faster than my mother. Silliness aside, from that moment on, a love of Robin Williams was born.
And he stayed with me all throughout my childhood, filling up my adult life at all the right moments, with all the right things. From Mrs. Doubtfire (“I saw it all – it was a run-by fruiting!”) to The Birdcage (“I made you short?”) to Dead Poets Society (I once gave a speech standing on a desk because of this movie, no lie) to The Crazy Ones (I loved the hell out of Simon Roberts), Williams made me laugh, look at things differently, realize it is okay to be weird, and examine life from every odd angle. You see, the people who teach us things aren’t always those we ever meet. Sometimes, it’s a writer’s work. Sometimes, it’s a singer’s lyrics. And sometimes, it’s an actor/comedian.
I remember the HBO special Williams did sometime after 9/11. I sat on the phone (the house phone, guys – not a cell phone) with my best friend for the entire duration of the special. We watched it together in a roundabout way. Dead Poets Society, when I first saw it, hit me hard – because I loved the idea behind it. I loved Keating and the way he was unfailing true to himself, striving to teach those around him to stop playing it safe and staying within the lines. There was such a ferocity and passion to his portrayal. There was such truth in it.
His death is senseless. It’s hit me harder than any other celebrity death. I heard the news while I was eating dinner, and I literally gasped out loud. Williams felt larger than life, a passionately funny man who was forever making people laugh. But it’s those people, sometimes, who are most vulnerable to depression. There are times where that bravado is an act, a defense mechanism, a deflection to keep people from seeing. I have plenty of friends who have suffered from mental illness. I have plenty of friends who are recovering addicts of all kinds. It is moments like this where we should remember to check on our people – especially those who may seem okay, but that haven’t been in the past.
Last week, on the anniversary of my mom’s death, someone very dear to me called to check on me and see how I was doing. It meant the world to me, truly. It made the day better. But I felt myself slipping into class clown mode a bit, cracking jokes and putting on an unplanned comedy show. It wasn’t intentional, and I knew that I was doing it. I just couldn’t stop it. That’s partly a defense mechanism. But at the time, I knew that I wasn’t fooling him at all. He knew I was sad. I knew I was sad. It was kind of an open secret. And it worked out okay, because I admitted it all later on.
My point is this: don’t let your pain be an open secret. If you’re sad, say something. If you need help, ask for it. Reach out. Reach out in whatever way you can. Call a hotline. Tweet something. Text someone. Email someone. I know that it’s hard when it’s dark. I know that it’s not easy when you’re in pain, and you’re surrounded by every devil that’s ever visited you. Fuck the devils. Fuck the demons. You’ve got people. And some of us my be far away – but we’re here.
Williams death reminded me, again, that life is too damn short, sometimes. And we would all do well to play hooky sometimes, love hard, love out loud, and make space in our lives for the little stupid joys that we too often attempt to shove aside because of expectations and obligations. Screw that. Stand on your desks. Write poetry. Spend the damn day naked with someone you love and who loves you back. The darkness doesn’t go away just because someone loves you. It’s not a cure-all. But love, guys, makes the darkness not seem so bad – it makes the bad stuff and the worries easier to handle.
Today, I’m remembering Williams as a man who made me love to laugh more than any other actor or comedian. Today, I am remembering my Captain, O’ Captain. And you can bet your last dollar that I intend to suck every last bit of marrow out of life. What about you?
I’ll be the first to admit that life is complicated. So, the little things we do to be present in each other’s lives matter. The small gestures that say, simply, “I’m here.” We often make the mistake – in the age supersizing, reality tv, and people who spend a year’s salary on their wedding – of thinking that only the gigantic, over-the-top gestures matter. That is, quite honestly, untrue.
There’s a line in an e.e. cummings poem (“somewhere i have never travelled”) that has always stuck with me. It’s this: in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me. Sure, you can read assume that the word “frail” means weak or fragile. But in the context of the poem itself, I’d argue that it means small – as in a simple, non-grand gesture. The little things, however frail, matter.
Life can be crazy and intense. The day-to-day bullshit can be hectic. But those people who stop in the middle of their crazy to show you that they care? Appreciate them. They are the people who love you. You can have a billion friends, but the ones who you can call when you’re sad – or who call you when you’re sad – those friends matter. This past week, I was really lucky in the people who made a point to show me how much they care. A phone call meant the world to me. A text message made me smile. Even a brief message as simple as, “Thinking of you” made me happy. Stress might be cumulative (the little annoyances adding up), but I like to think that the small gestures are cumulative, too. These things offer comfort, reassure us, tell us we’re important, and (most importantly) that we are loved. And we all need to know that, don’t we?
When I first started to write this post, I had an entirely different goal. I had this revelatory moment about a friend – when I realized that person really isn’t my friend. Sure, we get along great. We’ve had awesome times together. But there’s a point when you’re objectively looking at a relationship, and you realize that what’s said and what’s done doesn’t match up. That is a powerful thing. It’s a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky, and you were in the wrong place and the wrong time. I’m a very understanding person. I will forever bend over backward and find a way to work things out – because life doesn’t work without compromising. But when a person routinely makes excuses for something, those are not reasons. When a person says one thing, but does another – that’s not honesty. And when that person leaves you hanging like the proverbial geek up the flagpole at all-jock high school – well, that’s kind of a huge red flag. Because while the good little gestures add up, the absence of those gestures do, too.
Life is too short to stay among those who do not celebrate the hell out of us. It is too short to stay surrounded by negativity or those who do not give as good as they get. All relationships need balance – it doesn’t matter if it’s your brother, best friend, lover, or wife. Don’t get me wrong: we all do stupid things from time to time. But when actions are habitual, that’s not an accident. People may not always say how they feel, but they do show you. Likewise, people always show you who they are.
You give for what you love, darlings. It’s as pure and simple as that. Yes, relationships are messy. Things will never be perfect. But the mess is what matters, because it’s real. It’s honest. It’s wonderfully sloppy. (Which explains the current state of my kitchen and the forever state of my closet…please don’t look in there. Organized chaos!) I don’t ever want neat or pristine, because that’s just smoke and mirrors. I want the brilliance of the little things and the honesty that comes with making time and space for someone else. That’s a powerful magic that seems like a small thing. Sure, the big gestures are awesome – but give me a soft word and a meaningful look any day, loves. I want frail gestures that enclose me.
Here’s the thing about me: I often think I’m braver than I really am. It isn’t delusions of grandeur. It might be delusions of hope. Instances of swelling promise that lead me to believe – not that I’m bulletproof – but that I’m tougher than my sensitive nature allows. Most of the time, I can put up quite a good front, which occasionally fools even me.
But today? Today is not one of those days. Today, it’s two years since my mother died, and I thought it would bother me less if I stuck to my routine. Except, that’s not how feelings work. I maybe tried to strong-arm them into submission, only to fail miserably.
People always tell you the same (well-meant) things: it will get easier; you will feel better with time; and it gets better. Except with respect to losing a loved one, it doesn’t get better. It doesn’t get easier. It just gets different. You just learn to deal with it the best you can. This sometimes means crying at ridiculous things and needing people in a way you’re not entirely comfortable with.
Here’s another thing about me: I loathe asking for things from people. Loathe it. If you don’t offer, most of the time, I won’t ask. It is something I’m working on, but for now, it means that if I have asked you for something – I have not done it lightly. And it probably cost me more than it would someone else. I am stubborn. I have a ridiculous amount of pride. And did I mention I’m stubborn? Because I am.
This also means that I love with unfailing strength and passion. Life is short. Life is too short. I know this like I know that the sky is full of unseen stars. Things that happen in our lives often change us. My mother’s death was no exception. I’ve always been stubborn when it comes to knowing my own heart. No one can ever talk me out of my feelings, though a few daring souls have tried. But since my mother’s passing, I made a promise to myself to make a real effort to let those I love know that I love them, even when it may be unwise. Even when it might be inconvenient or difficult. Perhaps especially then. Because no matter what we tell ourselves, or how we try to wall ourselves off, we all need love.
So, in memory of my mother, who loved fiercely and without hesitation, I’m going to ask you this: if you love someone, tell them. Forget all your fear and just say it. Forget all the ways it might not fit into your plan. Forget everything except that feeling.
Be not only brave enough to love – but also brave enough to say it out loud. Don’t keep it to yourself. Don’t try to hold it in. Don’t you dare try to hide it. Because you never know when everything will change. Take this moment, this chance, and seize it. Darlings, you owe it to yourself – trust me on that. Love is not a pet to be kept in a cage – or a madwoman to be hidden in an attic.
Let it out. It’s the truest, scariest, best, wonderful thing you can do in life. Say the words out loud, and you might change a life. You might change your life. And love, revealed, is the absolute best change there ever is.