On Evolving Dreams and the Prospect of “Starting Over”

She might not look like what you pictured when you were 16. Her job might not be cool.
Her hair might not be flowing like a mermaid. And she might be really serious about something, or someone. And she might be a lot happier than you are right now.

— Katherine to Jessa, Girls

___

I briefly, and recently, worked with a girl five years my junior—fresh out of undergrad—who expressed, during one of our first shifts together, that she wanted to work with victims of sex trafficking.

She explained how she wanted to start a private company that would run investigations to recover victims and integrate them back into society. She capped this vision off with the belief that, in order to move on and lead a normal life, victims should be discouraged from telling their stories.

“It’s not good for people to talk about their trauma, over and over,” she said.

I looked at her sideways, and briefly questioned her on the effectiveness of this method. But beyond that, I didn’t really say much.

About a week or so later, I’d tell her, “I’m considering going back to school to become a therapist.” And it was her turn to look at me sideways.

“Oh,” she said, and then—not immediately after, but somewhere along the way in our conversation—“I just picture you being more nomadic and artsy.”

Some past version of me would’ve been thrilled to hear this latter response–to be perceived as nomadic, like a girl who wears bells and doesn’t believe in shirts. While current-me—the me-est me—felt mildly disappointed by her former and doubtful, “Oh.” (A response I’ve received a few times since the idea of becoming a therapist first entered my mind.)

Oh.

It’s like I’m letting people down. Like I’m admitting all the cynics who said, in response to my writing degree, What are you going to do with that?, were right. Like I’ll never pursue anything creative ever again. Like that part of my “career” is totally over—as if it ever really started to begin with.

***

About a month ago, I was accepted into an M.F.A. program for creative writing, and I was kind of surprised when the admission didn’t automatically render this other prospect—to return to school with the intent of becoming a therapist—completely irrelevant.

To “be a writer” is something I’ve always wanted. It’s something I’ve told myself I’d pursue to the bitter end, down whatever—and every—avenue. I told myself this under the pretense that I would look back and regret it if I didn’t try absolutely everything I possibly could. But then, I found myself at yet another interview, for yet another receptionist job, being asked, “In your career, what’s your biggest regret thus far?” And I thought: How many times am I going to do this? How many interviews can I sit through, half-heartedly, before I realize that—maybe my interviewing skills don’t suck? Maybe I just don’t want to be a receptionist all that much.

***

In undergrad, my favorite professor always said, “If you want to be a writer, do something else.” He didn’t say it as a discouragement from writing, but as a reminder that, in order to write well, one has to experience new things. And I took that to heart, in my own way. I told myself: Do the crappy jobs. Be the server, the cashier, the front desk girl—get shit on for a living. It’ll give you something to write about. And—yeah—that all might’ve passed for artistic pursuit in my early 20s. But, now, as I’m getting older and sealing up the cracks in my identity—have done, and will continue to do, the work of healing—I’ve started to seriously consider just how much I have always sold myself short.

All my life, I’ve said, “Writing is the only thing I’m good at.” And I allowed so much of my identity and self-worth—if not all of it—to be determined by this one talent. I honestly believed I had nothing else to offer. I put all my eggs in a single basket marked “starving artist” and did the crappy jobs. Because, I thought, that was it for me. But, over the past year and a half, my other talents have been brought to my attention. And now, in light of having been accepted into grad school, I can’t help but wonder if further education in writing would just be another way in which I sell myself short.

At the core of my desire to write, there has always been a desire to make other people feel less alone; to connect with humanity, and give people permission to keep telling their stories—however many times they need. And, even though it’s been a jagged pill, I’ve come to the understanding that my writing might never reach a wide enough audience to achieve this goal—at least not in the ways a career in mental health could. Which, might seem like my giving up on a dream—but it doesn’t feel that way to me.

If anything it feels like finally accepting, and admitting, that I am more than writing; that I can be of service to others in a way that runs deeper than counting out change and biting my tongue and blogging about it later.

It’s a chance to provide myself with a sense of purpose that “starving artist” never has, or will. Because—although there is a part of me that will always be dark and tormented and longing for something that isn’t there, my “nomadic” spirit—it’s a relief, to accept that I also have a deep seeded need for stability that deserves to be met. In spite of my past self, probably sighing in response from the depths of personal history: Oh.

I guess I find it eerie. How much I’ve changed since I first stepped out of undergrad and into the “real” world.

When my aforementioned co-worker told me—essentially—that repression was pivotal in terms of healing, I felt like telling her: You have no idea about the real world. I wanted to say: You wait. Someday you’re going to encounter someone so entitled, it’ll shake the foundation of everything you think you know.

So much of her cluelessness reminded me of who I used to be, and could never be again—not even if I tried.

***

I used to have this vision of myself—she runs away to the southernmost part of the country, and doesn’t need anything except for some dollar store paperbacks and a bikini.

She wants to be as far away from everyone as she can be, without drowning. So whatever has or hasn’t happened to her will look so far away, it won’t matter.

She might be a dream.

And I might be a lot happier than she is right now.

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Thoughts Provoked by Victim-Blaming and the Notion of Female Responsibility

Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.

—Margaret Atwood, “Half-Hanged Mary”

Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.

—Kate Manne, Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University

___

I recently found myself in an unwanted debate with a woman in her late forties who said, in relation to victims of sexual violence, that women needed “to start taking more responsibility for themselves.”

Up until this point, I thought we had been having a relatively friendly, thought-provoking, conversation. The statement, to me, was so out of line with all the opinions and values she’d expressed prior (being anti-trump; against and constantly shocked by the overwhelming entitlement many Americans possess; grossed out by our country’s racism, and its avid denial of the history that has allowed racism to evolve past slavery and segregation, etc.) that it threw me for a loop.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“You know,” she said, “I’ve gotten myself into some situations, and I can’t sit here and cry rape and deny that I put myself in those situations.”

This led to my asking a surplus of questions, like: Are women supposed to just not, like, live or do anything? What about men? How much responsibility are they expected to take? All of which, ultimately, kept being answered with the cryptic reiteration that she had “put herself in some situations” and that she “had to take responsibility” for those “situations.”

Which, yeah, okay, fine. That’s her prerogative, and right, as a freethinking individual.

However, all that being said, I still couldn’t stop myself from saying, “That makes me feel so sad, for you, though.” (I didn’t say this from a place of condescension. I said it from a place of: clearly something not-so-great happened to her, and she felt, on some level, that whatever happened to her was her fault; that it was her responsibility to blame herself and hold other women to the same standard. That she couldn’t view the situation—whatever it was—as a mistake to move on from, free of blame for both sides, and completely irrelevant to the sexual violence experienced by other women.)

Long story short: She didn’t like me saying that. She didn’t like me, period. (She made it very, very, clear.) And, not going to lie, I wasn’t exactly charmed by her either.

Days following the conversation, I felt increasingly less and less sympathetic, and more and more pissed off. Not at her, exactly, but at all the internalized misogyny it takes for a fellow woman to say something as vague and victim blaming as “women should take more responsibility for themselves,” just because she, apparently, had “bad sex” (a term used to describe the grey area, between sexual assault and consensual sex, with one example being the encounter between “Grace” and Aziz Ansari) once, and is so limited to her own experience that she assumes “bad sex” is what every woman means when she claims sexual violence. (Every time I’m about to see what people mean when they say #MeToo has gone to far, or that “women need to take more responsibility,” or that being too discerning as a woman—AKA, attempting to call certain men out on their bullshit, or not wanting all that much to do with men beyond the necessary interactions—is a problem, I stop and ask myself: When have women ever not taken responsibility for themselves, generally speaking? Like, the people who think this shit, have they ever seen an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale? Because, if you’ve ever seen The Handmaid’s Tale, you already know, every female character is forced to take responsibility for herself, on some level, and in spite of all victimization—even the most privileged, and complicit, among them. While all the men are heralded, excused, and—essentially—allowed to do whatever they want, so long as they contribute to, or remain complicit in, an oppressive system. This is, 110%, intended to serve as a magnifying glass for the real world.)

It made me consider, all the ways women do take responsibility, and how we fail to understand these ways as very telling of our surrounding culture’s beliefs about where the blame—in instances of sexual assault, rape, and abuse—truly lies: pepper spray among car keys, the firearm’s trainer who told me more women than ever are signing up for his classes, a co-worker who advised me to get a license to carry, due to my late and lonely work hours, “just in case…”

Eventually, all this consideration bled into other relating thoughts, and memories. Like how—due to recent law and policy changes—I had to sit through a sexual harassment training and listen to other women say things like, If you work in a male dominated environment, then you should expect to be harassed and discriminated against. Or, Women are only coming forward now because they want fame and money. And, Men aren’t allowed to say anything anymore.

And, I realized, it never fails to shock me—as if every time is the first time I’m realizing it—just how far American women are willing to distance themselves from the experiences of other American women, and just how much—through this distancing—they must hate themselves, in some deep-seeded way, for not being born men.

Like, okay—let’s say you’re a woman, and you believe women should expect to be harassed and discriminated against in male dominated environments. Now, ask yourself: Why the fuck do you want to believe that? (Ditto to the idea that women should take more responsibility for being assaulted, abused, raped, or even for running into “bad sex.”) I hear so many women say such flippant and self-eradicating things, and I don’t understand. Why—the constant denial, of one’s right to her own wholeness, and interests?

As a result of all this thinking, and in an attempt to understand, I eventually decided to read more about the general psychology behind victim-blaming. And I learned that, to some degree, victim blaming is a natural response to our own fear surrounding a victim’s experience. (For example, thinking a person who gets pick pocketed should’ve held onto his wallet, rather than keeping it in his back pocket, is a mild form of victim-blaming. It’s a means for us, as unaffected individuals, to restore our belief in the world as a safe and fair place, under the pretense that bad things only happen to those who—on some level—deserve them. AKA, getting pick pocketed would never happen to us because we’d be more responsible.)

I understand this psychological reflex is a form of self-preservation; that—yeah—it’s human instinct to deny vulnerability, or to want to distinguish oneself from it. I get that: we all want to look tough in the face of, or exempt from, the world’s hardships. And, therefore, we all victim-blame, to a certain extent. None of us are innocent. However, the older I get, and the more I learn, the more difficult it is for me to relate with people who don’t sympathize with the small, normalized and continuous, traumas that women endure, in everyday life, and how these small traumas condition many women, overtime, to hate themselves, and often, eventually, leads them into complacency, painful and chronic confusion, or even an active role in their own dehumanization—in spite of the choices modern living has offered them.

In America, we live in a free world, where we, as women, can want what we want; can be what we want. But, I think, the surrounding culture and society has given us so many conflicting messages about how women should and should not act; what we can and cannot be—is still so hyper-critical of feminine complexity—that many women have been robbed of the proper tools to figure out what the fuck “what we want” even, truly, is. (I don’t mean this in the short-term, like with things such as consent, or being able to answer confidently—yes or no—to a date. I mean in matters of responding to coercion and manipulation; to sex and power dynamics in professional settings; to long term relationships that gradually turn isolating and abusive; whether to defend a female colleague, or to keep your reputation, status, academic standing—what have you… How can women be expected to always respond to these experiences “correctly” when a good portion of the population still tells us these experiences aren’t even that complicated, or traumatizing?)

And I know: I’ve read articles that argue how what I’ve just described is infantilizing to women. But—based on my own humble and limited experience—I don’t see it that way. I see it as being honest, and fair—for once. (Growing up, I wasn’t deprived of options. I was taught to fight for myself. I was told that I could be whatever I wanted; that I had the choice to pursue my dreams; to wear what I wanted, date who I wanted, go where I wanted; to define my own experiences and identity, for myself. However, I wish someone would have told me that, pursuing and doing all of these things, without apology, or self-doubt—with intelligence, and confidence—would feel so lonely, and costly. Especially as a woman.) Because: I get it. This is the world women live in—a misogynistic one, where men often do, and get away with, things they know they shouldn’t—and it’s each woman’s individual responsibility to figure that out; to decide, how much she’s willing to fight for her whole self, or how much she’s willing to sacrifice and overlook—in exchange for some semblance of our patriarchal society’s acceptance. Knowing that, regardless of what she chooses to prioritize, it will never be enough to someone.

The Death of a Brontosaurus has Everything and Nothing to do with the End of a Friendship

Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.

— Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Maps”

____

Mildly disgusted with my own sentimentality, I turned my head so my boyfriend wouldn’t see me cry, as a brontosaurus swayed and tumbled to her death, after a volcanic eruption, in the new Jurassic World movie. (She was so helpless and gentle. I hated how all I could do was watch, as this CGI projection, so reminiscent of glossy pages, and pop-up books, suffered from such despair.)

Why did it make me feel as if someone had suddenly snapped all the kids books, in the world, shut?

I thought about it.

How the image of this long-necked dino exists in our collective imagination as a symbol of hope, and benevolence. (Earlier that week, watching Jurassic Park III, my boyfriend made a joke reminiscent of “not all men”. He said, “Not all dinosaurs!” as the scene cut, from vengeant raptors, to the familiar John Williams theme, playing over triumphant shots of herbivores—the brontosaurus, most notable, among them.)

When she groaned, and her knees—eventually—buckled; when she disappeared, among the dirt and ash, I had a flashback to Jay Gatsby, face down in his unused swimming pool. (This is a partial Leonardo DiCaprio reference. His face has always appeared, to me, as an unrealized dream. And, I guess, now the brontosaurus does too.)

I chose my muses, and re-imagined them as a personal trinity. (Leo D., Jay Gatsby, and the brontosaurus: What if I could climb up the tail of a brontosaurus—over its back, and onto some idyllic planet? One where Leo is more like Jay. Less womanizing, and more one-woman obsessed—but not to the point of death. Never like that. A more balanced place with a smiling brontosaurus in the sky…)

I Googled about brontosauruses.

Apparently this particular dinosaur’s existence has often been called into question, having gotten caught in the crossfire of a feud known as “The Bone Wars”. (These excavationist battles involved two paleontologists—Edward Cope and Othneil Marsh—who were so focused on one-upping each other, in terms of discovering new species of dinosaur, that they eventually forgot the importance of scientific accuracy altogether. It was believed—up until 2015—that the brontosaurus was actually just a camarasaurus wearing an apatosaurus’s skull. That the petty distraction, of Cope and Marsh’s feuding, had caused some explosive bone mix-up.)

Now, let’s just say, for my narrative’s sake, that these paleontologists started off as the best of friends. That their feud didn’t begin with dinosaur bones, but a woman. (An empty woman who was alluring the way a fixer-upper is alluring. In that “what could be” sort of way.)

Let’s say Cope saw her first. Fucked her first. (Ripped up her floorboards, and found the mold growing underneath.) Let’s say he tried to repair her—love her—first. That, every time—with every solved problem—yet another problem was revealed. Until, finally, he couldn’t take it anymore—he had to confide in someone.

Let’s say he confided in Marsh.

As they dusted the dirt off of a yet-to-be christened brontosaurus, he said, “I keep trying to make it work, but no matter what I do, it never comes together.”

Let’s say Marsh took a break from his brushing, and looked pensive. That he gave the kind of brutal honesty true friendship was wont to reveal. He said, “You’re just another tool in her shed. No woman wastes anytime thinking about a hammer until she needs one.”

Let’s say Cope wasn’t offended. In fact, let’s say he loved, and valued, Marsh, unwaveringly, for his honesty. Until—some while later—Marsh admitted that he’d been seeing this woman too. That he’d never seen any reason to stop.

Let’s say, after that, Cope couldn’t un-hear what Marsh had said. That it played, round and round, on a loop, inside his head: You’re just another tool in her shed…

Let’s say this has nothing to do with Cope and Marsh, or whether or not the brontosaurus ever existed. This is about me and a friend.

How I’d always considered her the “strong” one. So much so that, the first, and only, time I ever saw her break down, I felt shaken. (She shattered like the finest champagne glass. Her face contorted, right before she began to cry, and I felt like I’d just gazed into a mirror, right before it cracked.)

“I feel so used by him, all the time,” she said.

(And I tried to collect the pieces.)

I said, “I wish I could show you…”

But I never found the words to describe her worth. At least not adequately. And all the time, I sat on the sidelines, an idle friend. Watched as her relationship with cocaine formed, and never said a word. Just read about its effects on the body, and imagined her brain like a building with shotty wiring. Imagined the lights in her prefrontal lobe, flickering, with her will to live trapped inside—debating whether the electric bill was even worth paying.

When she told me she was sleeping with my ex—one who was unkind to me—I felt like I’d just noticed a shard of glass, stuck in the tip of my finger. (A small splinter from that day she shattered like a champagne glass; a reminder of how my friendship would always fall short, because what I wanted to give depended on something so abstract. A feeling that could only be internally realized, and never externally given: “I wish— I wish—”)

Does Leonardo DiCaprio ever get lonely?

I Googled this and the results were soul-crushing.

The first article that popped up was for Daily Mail, titled, “Leonardo DiCaprio will end up Miserable and Alone”. (Images of his alleged “misery” were presented alongside images of his womanizing—everyone seemed to presume the two existed in tandem. Like there was some eternal version of Leo, planted on a private island. Where his mega-yacht was forever docking, and long-legged blondes were slathering tanning oil on one another, all around him—perpetually. And still: He couldn’t stop scowling.)

Eventually I found a statement Leonardo DiCaprio made himself.

He admitted that, sometimes, he feels so lonely it’s like someone has just “punched” him in the gut. And I imagined—on that distant beach—the scowl of his eternal self, deepening. (That’s the trouble, with lonely people. We fail to understand loneliness as a state of mind, opposed to a state of being. Every failure at communication, every failed human connection, feels like a father’s blessing to marry the idea that one’s problems are unique.)

I keep trying to divorce this idea from myself. Because, I understand: I’m not the first person to feel betrayed by a best friend. But the way relationships seem to end, with me—it’s like a Big Bang in reverse. I recognize my inability to experience human connection in moderation. To this point where I’d just assume pulling up a towel next to Leo, on his miserable beach.

Casting my rose-tinted glasses to the wind, and replacing them with some dark shades, “Fuck him, fuck her, fuck everyone,” I’d say. And we’d share a loneliness, like only being able to comprehend the insides of our own eyelids.

Eventually, he’d try to make conversation—some small talk about the weather—and I’d say, “I wish you were Jay Gatsby.” Shut down his attempts at positive interaction because it just wasn’t meant to be that kind of beach date.

Why did the brontosaurus’s death make me so upset?

It symbolized the death of something noble—good intention run amuck. Like watching a good friend crash and burn and feeling as if you’ve always been hopelessly inadequate to stop it. Like, being Nick Carraway. The sole witness of Gatsby’s isolation. Realizing that, you were the only one who ever showed up for him. That there was always a whole system, rigged against him. And now you’re calling, and calling… Hoping he’ll pick up, and listen long enough for you to save him from—something, whatever it is.

This is about how The Great Gatsby was about friendship, just as much as it was about love.

It’s about how I recently listened to an episode of This American Life that was all about break-ups. It featured a girl who quoted Phil Collins, as her boyfriend broke up with her—on New Years Eve—because it was the only thing she could think to say at the time. And all I could think about was how I’d like to re-write mine and my ex best friend’s story to have an ending like a 90’s teen movie. (I’d chase her down—in lieu of Freddie Prinze Junior—and quote “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.)

It’s about what a shallow, best-friend-stealing, asshole “the way things are” can be.

How, the reality of the situation is this: The moment I found the words to describe her worth, I’d been disqualified as a credible source. And, I just couldn’t watch, as her priorities got fed through a siphon, the scope of which kept closing in, until there was only this: Cocaine. Like, the Daisy to her Gatsby. A promise that’d never materialize into anything other than the need for more.

It’s about how, in the meantime, I can be found watching the sunset, overlooking the water, from a lawn chair. Planted between my boyfriend, and my other best friend—twin fire signs, my two favorite Leos. Laughing at the past, and pointing out Great Blue Herons. The sounds of crickets, absolutely vivid. Realizing the emptiness I’ve carried inside, since birth, isn’t there.

And I think of her.

And, I wish—