The League

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The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


— Rumi

As I write this, we are just a few weeks out from the Las Vegas massacre of dozens of people, and the wounding of scores more. That same day, Tom Petty died, way too young and just a week after finishing a successful 40 year anniversary tour. Add to that some unsolvable problems I've been wrestling in my own life, and it's been a weird couple of weeks. Some dark thoughts occur to me, and probably to everyone, in times like these, and I've found myself going back to the Rumi poem above, to remind myself that the dark thoughts, the uncharitable ones, the fears and the judgments, are all part of a normal human life. I've had to teach myself to feel all my feelings, after a childhood spent trying to be the positive one. My dad was the poster child for Not Letting Yourself Be Sad, for here was a living example of how sadness could engulf a person until he was reduced to spending 2 hours a week with his child, resting his chin on his fist on the table of a restaurant and answering all questions with monosyllabic answers.  He was a real barrel of laughs, my dad - about 20% of the time. The other 80% he was down for the count, the always-toxic cocktail of untreated clinical depression and a tendency to wallow having swept the leg on his mood and worldview. With clinical depression in your family tree, it's a good idea to confront your feelings head on and then cull the unhelpful ones before they spread like wildfire. It was in just this mood earlier this week that I answered the text of a friend, who'd checked in with me to see how my day was going, "I feel like hard-boiled dog shit today, actually, thanks for asking." The day ended and some of the things that were bugging me felt less bothersome in the morning, and some didn't, because if we're brutally honest, life is hard even when you're a privileged white woman with access to unlimited healthy food and clean running water and decent health care, not to mention a roof over your head, a soft bed to call your own, and a laptop. Some things you just have to keep grappling with because they aren't in your power to solve, and the people with the power to solve them won't make the necessary effort.

Also, fuck those people.

Anyway, I was cleaning up downloads on my computer and backing up my phone pictures on that recent not-so-wonderful day, and I came across a picture that made me, literally, laugh out loud, which is saying something given the bleak mood I was in. The picture both amused and embarrassed me, since I'd forgotten I took it, and didn't intend to save it, regardless. I'd snapped it on my phone in a fit of pique and then it accidentally got saved to the computer with all of the actually important photos, like Ethan's graduation shots and the pictures of my summer trip and that one single photo that Owen allowed me to take of him on his 15th birthday. My son, the potential vampire. 

The funny/embarrassing photo was taken one Sunday afternoon while I was painting the doors of my bedroom closets. This was one of those meant-to-do-it-years-ago tasks I'd been putting off, first because Mick had liked the dark stain of the original closet doors when we bought the house, and then because, after he left, it took me a while to realize that I was the Decider now and could do whatever I wanted with the house, and then because it took quite a while to DIY my way through all the changes I wanted and needed to make to even be able to consider staying in the house that had once been ours. The closet doors were way down the list, so that it was just a month or so ago that I got to it, on the aforementioned Sunday. I had painted the doors to one closet and was moving on to the other when I remembered that this had been Mick's closet back in the day, that he'd wanted that one as opposed to the other for a reason that eludes me now. Somehow that memory upset me, and I was filled with irritation at him as I remembered packing up all the clothes from that closet after he'd disappeared (yes, I packed his goddamned clothes after he ran away, though it pains me to admit it. I also packed his children's clothes and washed the ones that were in their dirty hamper, figuring that whatever they must be going through, at least they'd have clean clothes). It's embarrassing to admit that I held a few things up to my face to smell them, like you would do if the person had died and you were trying to hold on to their scent just a while longer.

That asshole, I thought, paintbrush in hand. Imagine anything of his being worthy of clutching to my breast. In this mood, I created a little message to him on the closet door. It only lasted a few seconds, in the middle space between the old closet door and the freshly painted new one, but I have to say, it gave me a good laugh.

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Like I said, embarrassing. When it was done, I stood back, my arms wrapped around my torso, giggling like an idiot. And then I felt really glad that the children were all elsewhere, and I painted over it ex post facto hasty. 

Normally when people say that someone is "out of your league" they mean that person is much better looking than you are, and you have no chance with them, but that's not what I'm driving at here, of course. Mick is handsome enough, though I tend to think that there is something attractive about almost everyone, and history has taught me that what a person looks like on the outside is the least important part of a relationship. You need sexual attraction, in my opinion, to make a romantic relationship work, but outer qualities fade, so show me a person who is true blue on the inside, who does what he says he will do, who treats well the people he loves, who owns his mistakes and faces his demons, and I will see beauty there. Like my mom used to say when I was growing up, "pretty is as pretty does." Funny, as I think of it now, she was usually saying that about a beautiful person who was acting like a real jackass.  I guess sometimes those two things go hand in hand. 

No, the league I was referring to when I painted that little note to Mick's ghost was more in the sense of 'team'. Being me, I looked up the definition as soon as the closets were done; I'd kind of surprised myself with the spitefulness of the message, and figured the dictionary would illuminate things for me. As a non-religious person, the dictionary might be the closest I come to a Bible. I consult it, as Stuart Little says, "whenever I am in the slightest doubt." League, the dictionary explained, was defined as a collection of people, countries or groups that combine for a particular purpose, typically mutual protection or cooperation. 

"Yeah," I thought, feeling vindicated, "he totally doesn't get to be in my league!" It was the jilted lover equivalent of taking your ball and going home, and it felt good to slam that particular door shut in my mind. The closet door, in a manner of speaking. 

Oedipus (or was it Kung Fu Panda?) taught us that we will meet our fate on the road we take to avoid it, and I can't help but believe that this is especially true of the abdicators of the world, the ones who high tail it when the going gets tough. You can outrun a particular woman or creditor or bad action, but the person you are, for better or worse, will travel with you to the next destination. From watching a few people in my life take this approach, I've learned this: run once and it becomes easier to run again, and again, each time a hardship arises, so that, just like being brave once helps us be braver the next time, the runner grows ever more cowardly, self-hating, and unable to face the hard thing. Follow this road to its logical end and you'll arrive at what my friend Amy describes as "the one fork lifestyle," as in, no sense having more than one fork, because it ain't like you'll have friends coming around for dinner.  

In my many imagined letters/face to face confrontations/enraged voice mails to Mick, the one consistent thing I imagined saying to him was this: "Unlike you, I am not afraid of my own heart." None of that ever took place, of course - I didn't call or write or find him at his usual haunts, forcing a confrontation by parking my car directly behind his and doing my hand strengthening exercises until he emerged to get into his car. No, in the end he got to slip the noose, run aways scot-free, and face no repercussions, because I never could see how confronting him would make the road I had to travel any easier. I could never see how focusing my efforts on making him see my suffering would make me better. He didn't care about my feelings - wasn't that sort of the point? Maybe he never looks back, never thinks warily about me, but I have a feeling there's some dread of the other shoe dropping somewhere in his pea sized heart. And if not, I'm cool with that. That's his row to hoe. I did and am doing my work. 

Cowardice can make life less confrontational, of course, but what it can't ever get you is a league, sometimes referred to in this blog as a Panel of Wise Advisors. I hope you have one of these, too, and if not, may I bossily suggest you get crackin' on building one. Your league is made up of flawed, yet badass people, real, fiercely loyal people who have got your back without question. They'll tell you the straight truth while handing you the box of tissues, they will offer to fight your bullies, they'll let you cry for a few minutes before reminding you that you've survived all the hard things you've encountered before, so really, chances are you've got this, too. The men and women in your league are the ones who text you to see how you're doing out of the blue on the exact day you're having a shitty time, and when you write back that you feel like hard boiled dog shit, they will write back something like, "aww, fuck. Who do I have to kill?"

Your league makes you want to be a better version of you, though they fully accept you exactly as you are. The people in your league are not afraid of their own hearts, which is not to say that they are always proud of what turns up in them. Your league members will text you sometimes, saying things like, "Guess what idiot thing I just did? I painted a message to Mick on the damn closet door." And you'll laugh, in a sympathetic way, because you love them for sharing that embarrassing story. They aren't perfect, certainly, and neither are you, but you can be real with each other. 

Not in your league: people who want to compete with you, unless it's in that 'make each other better' way.  People who don't root for your success can't be in your league, and neither can people who repeatedly say they wish they could help you with the load you're carrying, but then noticeably do NOT turn up with a black ski mask and a gym bag full of rope when you text them at midnight that it's go time. The people in your league are not your friends from high school with whom you have little in common anymore, but grudgingly agree to have coffee with when they're back in town for the holidays, just because you feel like you should. They're not your exhausting, high maintenance professional colleagues or that one college friend who seems to only want to get in touch to see how much more shittily your life is going compared to hers. Oh.Hell.No. Those people are Have Coffee With Once a Year friends, and that's fine. Every life has got some of those, but I don't even hang out with those folks anymore. Nothing against them, but I don't have enough time left in my life to spend it having guilt coffee, or nostalgia coffee, or shame coffee. How about no. When I bump into these people at the grocery store and they say, " it's SO good to see you! We should get coffee!" I say back, truthfully, "I'm glad I got to see you, too. I wish there was more time for catching up. You take care!" That's not a lie and it's not getting roped into a social experience that doesn't mean anything to me. My time is precious and I need all of it. I need to work full time, and I need to cook and clean and take care of my children. I need a little solitude once in a while, so I can hear myself above the din, and I need to tinker around with my creative pursuits. I need to get a little exercise and get some time in nature, and then all the rest of the time I need for spending with my kick ass league. 

For me, it's my league that gets me through the dark times. I mean, it's myself, of course, my own resources. That's all that any of us has to draw from, when the lights go down on the stage and even the lady with the push broom gets to go home. Shortly after Mick left, a friend sent me an amazing email with all kinds of supportive love, and she quoted the lyrics from some country song: "even when you're lying with somebody, we all fall asleep alone." That's true of facing hardship too - even with a support system, you can't turn your brain and your heart over to others. There's no clean, clinical removal that can be done with sterile gloves, no white coated professional to whom you can hand your vital organs and say, "get it all sorted out, won't you? I'll be over here, sunning myself while you extract the pain and make sure I come out of this stronger than ever."  If it were that easy, then every chump on the street would be a ninja-level badass, but until that technology becomes available, we are going to have to keep being selective about who we admit to our leagues, because it's those people who will hold your hair while you puke, hug you while you cry, and help you pull up your big girl panties when it's time to face facts. They will lend you their pearls and give you advice on how to wear your hair, because your league not only wants you to survive whatever you are facing, they want you to do it in style.

Sometimes the people in your league aren't even people you're close with. Maybe they're there because they do something for you that no one else can do quite as well. My massage therapist is one of these; I've been in her home dozens of times but I know almost nothing about her. She could be a Nazi sympathizer or a doll collector or a vegan for all I know. We don't really talk apart from the usual pleasantries.  I do know she's a crossfitter, because crossfit people are like mimes - they make themselves known within the first minute you interact with them. Which is fine, of course. AMRAP your hearts out, crossfit people, and more power to you. I'll hold your hair during the post-workout puking. Other than the kind of car she drives and her devotion to crossfit, I don't know anything about my massage therapist, but still, she is one of only two people in this world who can say to me, upon my arrival at her house, "use the bathroom if you need to, and then I'll see you in there, face down." (And the other person who could say that to me and live to tell the tale also provides me with things I can't get, and wouldn't want, from anyone else.)

As weird as it may sound, Tom Petty was in my league. He wrote some of the most formative songs of my young adulthood, and he featured heavily in the last year or so of my life, as the color came back into the places that had been black and white for a few years. He had the musical chops of a superstar, of course, but he also had the songwriting soul of a man who has been in the valley and knows what it is to fall asleep alone. I loved and respected his music more than I can say, and his death hit me, together with the latest pointless, terrorizing massacre, hard. Everyone I talked to about this felt the same; it was just the shittiest Monday in recent memory.

People in my league are struggling. They have marital problems and money problems. They have kids giving them trouble, medical issues, house repairs to tackle but no money with which to tackle them. People in my league are fed up or worn down, mad as hell or bluer than blue. Life is really weird and hard right now, it seems, for almost everyone I'm close with. But what sets them apart is that the people in my league talk to me about their challenges, share them, face them, make dark jokes about them, accept my support when I offer it, try to also focus on the things in their lives that are going well. To make it into my league you've got to be willing to be honest about your struggles but also make an effort to make things better. The people in my league put skin in the game. You get to feel how you're feeling, you get to share those feelings with me, we get to rail against whatever set of circumstances got you there, but after that, it's time to fill a spiral bound notebook with your 25 year plan for how to get where you want to be. No wallowing, but otherwise you know I'll never judge, because that's what a league is all about.

One of the few things I remember from my teenage obsession with the French existentialists is that Sartre said, "Hell is other people." I do sometimes feel this way, when stuck in traffic behind someone going ten miles under the speed limit, or in a long line at a store, but mostly I think a better description would be, "hell is the wrong people." If you have the right people in your league, life is infinitely easier and more fun. You'll still have to expect to face difficulties and hardships, but you'll have someone to root you on. Remember that who's in your league is up to you. Cull that list early and often, for maximum results, and don't forget to brag about the ones who always make the cut. Case in point: after I texted her a litany of hardships I was facing the other day, my sister texted me this photo: 

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She had heard me out and knew that I wasn't whining; the problems I was complaining about are larger-than-average, unsolvable-by-me problems. She knew better than to tell me to cheer up, or to be impatient with how sad and angry the bullshit was making me. Like all the members of my league, she was comfortable being in the discomfort with me. She didn't need to change the subject or pretend she was too busy to text right then. She knew the right way to approach it was this photo, which is why she is a Honorary Lifetime Member of my League. And although she hasn't seen the closet photo yet, I bet when she reads this she will crack the F up, because that's really the only right response to someone who had the chance to be in my league, and screwed it up.