White Noise

thSW7XF2SPA couple of years ago, I bought a white noise machine for the bedroom. I’d heard about them for years but never saw the point. I like to sleep with quiet, not noise. Ivy’s dad bought one years and years ago, before Ivy was born. It wasn’t white noise though, it was rain and forest sounds. That was fine but then there would be a random cricket or a bang of thunder and I’d pop awake.

thBut I bought this machine anyway, probably on a Black Friday sale or something, I don’t recall. What I do recall is that by about day three, I couldn’t sleep without it. It shut out all the other real life noises, like dogs and cats jumping off the bed, or Sugar Glider barks, or crickets in the bathroom, or neighbors driving by. And mostly, it quieted the noises in my head.

I won’t go so far as to say there are voices in my head, because that sounds too much like insanity. But there is a lot of noise all the time, a lot of my own thoughts, and replays of songs, or television shows, or general music, plus the sound memories of a million different experiences from the day going a thousand miles an hour. There are endless what-if scenarios running on all the time, being played out layer after layer. Sometimes the white noise machine isn’t enough but it certainly takes the edge off.

blurred-racing-thoughtsI bring this all up because about a month ago I decided I needed to give up added sugar. My weight has gone up and down a bunch of times since I started this blog. I’m on an upswing now. I’m pretty heavy but holding fast and not gaining. I gave up eating meat about six months ago and gained weight because I was eating a lot more carbs. I’m sticking to being a vegetarian but there’s no excuse for all the sugar. Plus, as I age my cholesterol is going up. I’d never read labels for sugar before and certainly never really thought of it as anything but my harmless and much-adored drug of choice.

The first few days of not having sugar were miserable. I was shaky and so hyper even I wanted to slap me. Seeing the effects of withdrawal sort of woke me up to how addicted I truly was. After that initial adverse reaction though, I became calm. Too calm. The noise in my head was gone. It was uncomfortable for me, this silence. There was just…nothing. I felt depressed, which is not like me.

As moods go, I’m mostly zippy and bubbly all the time. I’ve been likened to Winnie the Pooh, Pollyanna, and Holly Hunter’s role in Broadcast News. But suddenly I was flat and sad. I took some vacation time from work to use up days and binge watched TV. I didn’t write at the same time or work on my dollhouse or read. I just sat. I was worried I was actually “depressed” and not just blue. Then I became concerned that maybe this was the new normal. Maybe this is how regular felt and I was usually so (sugar) high all the time I didn’t know it.

crazy_thoughts_by_treefrog_productions-d48jkcqI craved the erratic chaos in my head, the wide-awakedness, the creativity I couldn’t staunch. But it was just white noise inside. I had physical energy. Too much really, so I was still jazzed up that way. I did a ton of yard work and carried 130 bags of mulch, some in the rain, to spread. I laid weed barrier and hurt everything in my body. I weeded the hill and sliced my dirt-packed finger on a palm tree and kept working.  But the frenetic mental self, the crazy Carly inside, she wasn’t there.

I met a guy in an airport once who asked if I was Hypo Manic. I said no. He said he was and he took meds for it and it changed his life. He explained that most people hover a little above and a little below the normal mood range. And people like us, we’re almost always up up up. It’s not as drastic as bipolar. It’s like mini bipolar. But without as much down. At least that’s how I understand it. Back then I questioned why the heck I’d want to tamp down my constant happiness.

But after the last few weeks I kind of get it now. Part of me was sad because I missed the high, the explosion of mental positive energy and creativity that NEVER SHUTS DOWN. And the other half of me was so damn relieved to rest. To shut down and stare at the TV and binge watch Netflix shows. That side of me dreaded when the next wave of super energy would come back because I realized then how utterly exhausting that can be.

Lake-Placid-and-vicinity-6055989-smallTabletRetinaIt’s been a month since I gave up added sugar, or at least knocked it way down. I feel okay now, not sad, not excited just kind of even. I still get a little burst of happiness from hugging Ryan or the pets, or looking at the flowers in my garden, but I’m not Roger Rabbit happy, and that’s okay.

Maybe as time goes on my brain will continue to readjust to the lack of sugar, and will rewire. I will be super hyper all on my own, driving everyone around me to drink. Or maybe the little white noise machine in my head will keep running, and I will know how it feels to feel quiet, to feel placid.

This is my first blog in a month or so and I guess that says something about my emergence from the “drug” withdrawal. I made it through Easter without Cadbury Eggs which is a feat all on its own. Today I picked up a Snickers three times in the store and set it down. I then picked up a Three Musketeers. I set that down too and left with fresh strawberries.

I’m not saying sugar has shaped my personality, only allowed it to flourish and go unchecked and unbridled. Maybe I won’t be writing a book a year, and writing screenplays and stories and trying to learn Spanish and renovating the house and volunteering and working full time…but I’m good with that.

For the first time in my life, I think I’d be good to just sit for a while and be content and hear…nothing.

To accepting tranquility,

-Carly G.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Fountain of Youth

IMGWhen you’re a kid, your life revolves around playing with your friends and focusing on the now.  You give very little thought about the future because the assumption is that you live will forever. You haven’t yet learned about race or class, or that you are better than or less than a friend because of social standing. It’s a time of purity and wonder.

As you age you measure yourself against others, obsess about achieving. You feel inadequate if your house isn’t big enough, or if you can’t afford a house. If you have a job you love it’s not good enough, you need to get a higher position in the company to feel validated, and make more money for a bigger house. These are generalizations. There are plenty of people who live frugally and have the home and car they need and do not spend their lives discontented with their present station in life. Good for them. They are a step ahead of the rest of us for whom there is a burning desire to fare better than our parents did, live in a nicer place, get more education…

A couple of weeks ago, Ivy and I took an unexpected trip to the Salton Sea, to visit my father and step mother, Lola. It’s about a two hundred mile drive to their place, which we’d never seen. When I’ve visited them in the past bunch of years, it was at my sister Tammy’s place in Arizona. Ivy hadn’t seen them since she was nine years old which was way too long.

Ivy and I drove, chatting along the way as the miles flew past. As we neared the destination, there was a movie-like fade in. Windmills.  Hundreds and hundreds of them in sync, blowing, spinning round and round like enormous pinwheels. I imagined a voice narrating. “And now it begins.”   windmills

After the surreal windmill scene, miles and miles of nothingness followed. Dry, dead, drought grass as far as we could see.

file-1Then suddenly to our right we saw light gleaming off the Salton Sea, the one-time tourist attraction extraordinaire turned highly salinated, somewhat toxic, dead-fish-on-its-shores site. It’s stunning to see, as mesmerizing as any real ocean, with its sparking waters, and rhythmic waves. It was a joy to spot this oasis, this vast rolling ocean within  miles of barren landscape.

Before long we saw the RV park up on the left, a bright white oval eye against a flat, dry yellow face. I know, I know, me and my symbolism. In my defense, the park is called Fountain of Youth so I’m not the only one who is a symbol enthusiast.

Front_Entrance_Fountain_of_Youth_Spa400This 55+ park is where Dad and Lola have spent most of their time in the last nine years or so, going up north to another park in summers, or to stay with Tammy. Once we passed through the security gate, Lola pulled up on a golf cart and told us to follow her. We drove down the small cozy paved roads, peppered with flowering shrubs and trees, until we reached their home. We dropped off our things, jumped in the cart, and drove to their friend Sophie’s lot where we spent most of the rest of our visit.

There was a parade that day, and we watched as the residents, all of them good friends, marched on with their floats, each proudly showing off their activity: hiking, bocce, golf. People from all around the world ended up there. Two fire trucks showed up for the parade too and everyone waved at them. Lola said they see the emergency workers a lot because it’s a senior park and people are always dying. She said it as a matter of fact, no emotion or commentary. I thought of a neighborhood of children, when suddenly one child leaves in a moving truck, never to be seen again. You move on and just enjoy the friends you have left. The residents here do the same.

After the parade, the crowd flowed up to the deck at Sophie’s place, the roomy home with the desert and sea view, with a wall of bright pink azaleas and a mini Mourning dove who watched us suspiciously from her nest. The Chocolate Mountains perfectly completed the backdrop. The whole day felt like a movie broken up into scenes with Ivy and me moving from seat to seat, spending time with different combinations of Dad and Lola and their friends, listening to their conversations, telling them our stories.

th1BQYRXVGThere was a lot of champagne flowing that day, and the people at the party were as lively as college students, and enjoying their lives just as much. Fountain of Youth, indeed. From what I saw and heard, their days consist of hanging out and playing, reading, enjoying the pool and hot tub, and taking walks with their dogs. Their pensions or social security or savings cover their expenses. They can just enjoy living, having earned it after so many years of “adulting.” I’m sure there are real issues they deal with beneath the surface, worrying about their grown children, or people they have conflicts with, or their health; but for the most part, they collectively seemed to be content, right where they landed.

At one point I sat with a British man from Canterbury. He and I sat on a wicker couch. I asked him what he did…before. Everyone here was retired after all, and from all over the world. I was curious about his job when he was on the work force. He paused, said no one ever asked that. He was fine with telling me but realized no one ever asked. His life before does not matter for this blog, only the point that everyone in the park lives in the now. He looked around and pointed, “I don’t know what he did before, or him, or her…” but added, “They’re good people.”

I suggested that everyone was on a level playing field here, it seemed. He said yes, exactly. Some of them had a lot of money, some not so much. In the complex, there were probably doctors and lawyers and who knows what, but now they’re retired. What they had before or were before…none of that mattered here. He said something along the lines of, “I’ll probably die here but I’m okay with that. I like it here.”

contentmentIt got me thinking. At the end of the day, or the end of your life, when careers are over and your children are grown with children or grandchildren of their own, it’s your time.  Your season to hang out with friends, and relax, and talk about the journey you are on together, in the now. Because then is long gone and what remains is all that matters. All the corporate climbing, and the fancy cars and clothes, and how popular you were in high school, it matters so little in the scheme of things.

Now they are all living in similar small seasonal homes, drinking champagne on a deck and looking over at an ocean that was at its prime when they were children. And like them, time may have changed it, weathered it, made it not as healthy as it once was; but it is just as strong and vibrant and full of life.

They take each moment for what it is. One bocce tournament at a time, one karaoke night, one homecoming parade, one round of golf on the sand course, one friend leaving forever in an ambulance…

The next morning we went to Bombay Beach before breakfast. To me it was a sad, forgotten place. The area was mostly abandoned. The beach sported derelict buildings and structures that many years ago could have been thriving hot dog stands or amusement park rides. I pictured tourist families running around on the beach, excited to be escaping from their life to come to this miracle ocean. I contrasted it to life now: the empty beach, the empty buildings. No one around except for some residents who live close by, in the tiny area of homes before the vastness that stretches on until the park where Dad and Lola live.

We went to the American Legion and met their friends from the night before. A man who was probably eighty held up a paper cup with a Bloody Mary in it—the drink of choice for all of them. “Some party last night!” I didn’t know him but laughed at the relaxed frivolity amongst them. In the corner, an older man played his guitar and sang country music. We sat with Dad and his friends at a long folding table, and we ordered off a paper slip menu with check boxes. It was an adventure.

I couldn’t help but imagine the narrator’s voice then, the Buddha-esque Carly who puts things in perspective. “This is the scene where you look around and drink everything in. Where you came from, where they came from does not matter. You are part of their journey and they are part of yours. ” Their friend Sophie looked at me then and smiled. “There’s a lot of kindness here.” Her eyes scanned the room as mine did. “A lot of kind people.”

A short while later, Ivy and I said our goodbyes and began the drive alongside the Salton Sea, now to our left. We drove until we were surrounded by the windmills again, lulling us back from what felt like our dream sequence, the symbolic end of our trip. And into the heavy traffic of the 10 and the 5 and 118…and back to our own version of now. The hurried, break-neck pace of our lives with jobs and college and our everyday challenges.

There is something to be said for retirement, and slowing down, and appreciating life at face value, seeing your friends as you did when you were children, without the filters of color or finances. The gift is to savor what is here now and not what is next. Life is fleeting, and the next thing may never come. But now is all around us, and there is a lot of kindness here.

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And that is what I learned on my trip to see my father.

-Carly G.

The Inner Judge

The other day I went into an upscale burger place in our town to set up a fundraiser for a pet rescue I’m involved with. While I waited for the manager, I saw two middle class, middle aged men walk up to the counter together to get their trays of food. One of the men grabbed a double burger from the tray and dashed outside. My instant reaction was that this guy was jerk. He didn’t even say goodbye to his friend, just snatched the food and ran out. What an antisocial creep, I thought. I got a little angry and rolled my eyes.

Luckily, I kept an eye on the hamburger grabber and felt like a judgmental idiot when I saw him hand the burger to the bedraggled looking, probable homeless man outside. The scraggly man smiled and took the burger to go with drink he already had (surely the man bought that too). Then the middle aged man came back in, rejoined his friend, and they took the trays and went off to sit. I noticed as the man walked away that he wore an L.A. City Fire t-shirt. So he saves lives and gives food to homeless people. Good job, Carly, wrongly judging a really good guy based on…what exactly?

It got me wondering why we put labels on people. I talked to Ryan about it on the way home, how when you’re younger you need labels so you can tell one person from another. Dangerous person, nice person, old person, child, parent, teacher, policeman, etc. We learn labels from parents and from society and it’s important to know who people are so we can stay safe. But as we grow up, it goes one of two ways.

You cling to the identifying tags you learned through experience, and die with an unwavering conviction that all X types are bad and all Y types will hurt you, and you are the only one who is truly good and smart and worthy. I know too many people who slap labels on every poor soul who is not just like them. Are they so lacking in self-awareness that they truly think they are better than everyone? Or do they have so little confidence that they need to put others down to feel good? Whatever the causation, it makes for a lot of negativity inside them and to the ones who endure their judgment.

The second way it can go is that you grow up. You learn lessons from those around you who are different. You put yourself in their shoes, and you understand.

When I was younger, I was pretty self-righteous. Maybe I didn’t come right out and say, “I would NEVER do that. I can’t believe you live your life that way.” But I thought it. A lot. Maybe I said it too. I hope not. But time humbles a person; and over the years I took on a lot of roles I may have turned my nose up at before. I’ve been divorced twice, lived with men out of wedlock, didn’t finish college, drank enough alcohol to throw up a bunch of times, got a tattoo, declared bankruptcy, gave away a dog I couldn’t control, smoked cigarettes, raised my daughter on takeout food…the list goes on and on.

All things my younger, perfect-self vowed never to do.

But as you live life, you often start becoming all the things you rallied against. It takes the wind out of your sails in a hurry, and you gain compassion because you know how it feels to be on other side. I’ve lived in some very low rent apartments and some fancy houses. I’ve been a registered Democrat, Republican, and have voted third party. I did the Atkins diet and ate mostly meat for a year. And now I’m a tree hugging vegetarian in Southern California. I never saw that happening. The California part at least. I think I always had an inner hippie.

And for everything I wasn’t: homeless, a minority, chronically ill, elderly, fiercely religious, gay, a drug addict or alcoholic, violent, mentally challenged, very rich, college educated, depressed, schizophrenic… I have been very close to people who are those things and it gave me perspective.

I consider myself a self-aware, kind person. But then there was the guy the other day. The inner me burst out, unfairly labeling and judging the kind man who was bringing food to a homeless guy, reminding me that old habits die hard. I wanted to smack my smug inner voice.

Inside, we are all just humans, crossing paths on this planet at the same time. We have different journeys but share the same roads. And it’s a much better experience if you learn to respect your fellow travelers and see them as they are, not through the lenses of your own biases.

It’s good that once in a while I am reminded that I’m not quite there yet and still have a lot of work left to do.

Here’s to true kindness,

-Carly G.

On Building a Dollhouse

Ryan bought me a dollhouse for Christmas. I never had one as a child, except for a folding vinyl one we got at a flea market. Though I liked that one very much at the time, it was not a real dollhouse. I always wanted a big wooden house that I could decorate with wallpaper and paint and tiny furniture. I never managed to get one, and when I had Ivy I vowed that she would have a grand dollhouse. For some reason, her childhood went by too fast and I never managed to get her one either.  She says she was just as happy with her multi-level grand Barbie house with an elevator but to me that does not count.

So on Christmas I opened a real dollhouse and was thrilled. It was a kit with a lot of pieces but that made it all the more fun, right? Well, yes and no. It took a week before I had time to open the box and pour out the pieces, which seemed to multiply before my eyes. I had only a grainy picture on the box to guide me as to the final result, and some simple directions. Simple here means not that they made it simple for me to assemble but that the manufacturer simplified his process by putting everything in basic, poorly drawn sketches and covered all the instructions in about ten pages.

To say I was intimidated is an understatement. For one, I expected to snap it together, paint it, furnish it, and display it in record time. It took a whole day just to dry fit the base together because I didn’t understand the picture and kept taking it apart and putting it back together, second guessing every step. On the third try, I gave up and Ryan came out and took it apart and put it back together the exact same way and said the instructions were not confusing at all. But they were. I then watched YouTube Videos and read blogs about dollhouses. Most say you should paint the pieces first.

For a bit I sat, stunned, realizing that before I could build this I had to decide on colors, buy the paint and supplies, dry fit everything to make sure I had the right pieces in the right places, paint them, then glue them. With a lot of waiting in between. This would take forever!

Then I took a mental step back. So it takes forever. The point of the house, I understood then, was not to have something to display, but something to do, to experience. When the next weekend rolled around, I had my supplies, plenty of time, and a different attitude. All day Sunday, I painstakingly painted all the window frames on the first floor. I stained and polyurethaned the grand front door and porch railings. I thought ahead to paint the second floor piece white on one side for ceilings. I felt very clever and excited about my newfound dollhouse skills.

Then I started gluing. I forced a little window in and the wall itself got loose. Okay, I should have put the windows in before I put the walls up. Check. Lesson learned.

I glued all the window frames in and taped them up to hold them until the glue dried. I glued the front door in. I glued in the porch railings. And a few minutes later I realized the back of the railings were unstained. It was too late to take it all apart so I used a Q-tip dipped in stain and mostly covered everything.

Wow the first floor looked great, I thought. And I was thoroughly enjoying the process, learning what to do and what not to do. Like life, it’s about the experience. It’s about not making the same mistakes. I am sure that by the time I’m working on the top floor I will have this all figured out and hopefully no one will notice the errors on the first two floors.

With life, I am hoping people just focus on the NOW me, on my NOW life, not all the foolish, inept things I did when I was younger and just learning.

I looked at the grainy sketch of the house from the outside of the box. Life is very much like building a dollhouse. You see a picture of a grandparent or distant relative, someone the family speaks of with reverence. You wonder how to be like that, how to achieve what she did. There are no good instructions, just the bare bones you may hear about. She worked hard, got a degree, got married…

No one supplies the details of how she became successful. How she became an incredible matriarch that everyone looked up to. I am sure that if you were to see the details of such a life, you would find mistakes she made along the way. But we only look at the finished product. We remember the final person, and tend not to dwell on what she was before, unless we are resentful and hateful people (which I am not).

When I went to take pictures of my house in progress I was miffed to discover that my forgetting to paint the backsides of the window frames mattered. From the inside, they were unpainted and wood burned in some areas. It was too late to start over. I hadn’t thought about the inside of the house. Alas, another metaphor for life. We do not think about the insides, what we assume people cannot see. We strive for the outside appearance. The paint and stain and what the structure looks like. We tend not to focus on how we feel, the guilt we have, the sacrifices we’ve made, the compromises, the triumphs. We focus on what people will see. And there is no starting over.

In the end my dollhouse will look beautiful, because of what I’ve learned, because of the time I spent, and the enjoyment and frustrations I poured into it. Because only I know the errors I made and how hard I worked to get things right, and how proud I was when I did get things right. To someone on the outside, it may look a little flawed. Perhaps I’ll hang tiny wallpaper that isn’t the right scale, or I’ll use lavender paint in the living room that a miniature expert will think looks gaudy. But to me it will be just right, because at the end of the day I am supposed to make my own happiness. What others think should not penetrate the walls of this little house that is crafted with love and hope and dreams. This little house that symbolizes me, my struggles, and my pride in building a life.

Perhaps my foundation was shaky and I had subpar instructions, but in the end, I think me and my house will turn out just fine.

To building a life-

-Carly G.

 

 

 

Outside, Looking In

imagesOne of my biggest fears is losing my mind. This worry stems, I think, from the fact that my brain is always going in a hundred directions, that my imagination is a little too strong, and that there are constant weird parallels in my life that make me wonder, too often, if I’m living in a video game.

They say there are only so many fiction plots, and I add that beyond that only so many subplots. Assuming our lives are predestined, there are only so many different situations we can encounter over the course of our lives before they start to repeat or overlap. I’ve mentioned these before in this blog: the time the priest who married my first husband and me twenty years prior, magically appeared in my life the day after I sold my engagement ring from Husband # 2. Or when I met my ex-stepfather again after twenty-five years and upon walking toward him ran into Ivy’s ex-stepfather.

My life is fraught with parallels and coincidences and I have come to accept them as messages from some metaphysical being or God saying, “I’m giving you some clues here, some hints that you’re on the right path.” Stuff like that makes me wonder if I’m going crazy, but more often than not I like it and think it makes me special, in a good way, not the lock-you-up-in-an-institution way.DownloadedFile

The other night I went to a hair salon to take a few inches off my uncontrolled mop. I never can remember the names of the hairdressers there, except for Ling but Ling is always booked in advance, and I always show up on whim. A very young, skinny, blonde girl (I’ll call her Lori) said she could take me.  I told her what I wanted and she began to snip away.

We talked as she cut. I explained that I was from Massachusetts, met a guy online, etc. Lori listened intently and then said, “My mother did the same thing. She met a guy online but from the east coast. They had a long distance relationship and flew back and forth a lot too. They’ve been together a few years and he just proposed to her and now she’s moving out to Pennsylvania.” I asked her age and she said twenty-one. The same age as Ivy. Lori is also an only child. DownloadedFile

For a moment I thought, what are the odds? A girl Ivy’s age whose mother meets a guy online and moves to the opposite coast? It was clearly another one of these little notes from the universe. So I waited with bated breath to see how she felt about it. Not that this necessarily reflects what Ivy thinks but it’s been my experience with coincidences that they are pretty spot on.

We talked about relationships and how, above all else, I’m content and relieved to have a permanent partner who is nice. To have a best friend, a companion. To live without my focus being on fixing a broken relationship, or getting over a man, or finding a new one. She nodded and said she is very happy that her mother has someone to spend her life with, to settle down with, so she won’t have to worry about her.

Children should not have to worry about their parents. They should be able to watch them being responsible adults, leading by example. I regret that many of Ivy’s lessons learned about relationships were from my “This is what not to do,” teachings.

Ivy has not said much about my relationship with Ryan in the past six years. She was never one to pull punches about other men I dated, or married. thVDPX3FZ6

Some of her most poignant comments, about various people were: “It makes me sick to look at him, he’s obnoxious, he’s conceited, he’s stupid, he’s crazy, he’s lying, he’s mean,  he argues about everything…” I could go on all day. With Ryan, she never said a word, which was odd. Maybe because she knew how much he meant to me. Maybe because at that point she was tired of her very valid complaints falling on deaf ears. Maybe because Ryan didn’t deserve her venom and she has never been critical without reason.

Last year Ryan bravely asked her if she liked him, sort of joking, as we assume by now that she does. She said quite plainly, “All we ever wanted was someone who was nice to me and to my mom. You’ve been nice so yes, I like you.” Simple words but it’s the core of so many successful relationships, and the lack of it is the downfall of so many more.

The hairdresser explained that her parents used to fight all the time. There was no physical violence but so much anger and shouting. This reminded me of the time Ivy and her stepsister at the time, they were about nine and seven respectively, put notes all over the house saying “STOP YELLING!” I told the hairdresser about this and how nice it is now that there is no yelling. She said there is no yelling in her mother’s new relationship either.

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I wondered, what was the message here? What was the universe trying to tell me? Then she said it. “I want to find someone to settle down with and have that kind of relationship. Like she has now. A best friend, someone to love, to depend on. Someone nice.” And there it was. The new relationship is the one she’s using as an example of how things are supposed to be, not the failed marriage of her parents.  This revelation made me realize that Ivy may be using my relationship with Ryan as her basis for how things should work, not all my ghosts of relationships past.

Ivy has learned from me, for better or worse, and hopefully I met Ryan in time for her to see that there is such a thing as a good match. When I see her with Trevor, placid and peaceful, I think we are all on the right path.

Here’s to looking for signs in everyday occurrences,

-Carly G.

The True Smallness of Bullies

My old dog Sally was eight pounds when we got her. We carried her everywhere, zipped up in our jackets. Later when she was eighty pounds, she didn’t grasp why she didn’t fit in our jackets. She did not know that if she wanted to attack and kill us, she could have. She did not comprehend that we were no longer twenty times bigger than her.

Sometimes a man will take a sweet puppy, abuse him, and make him mean. And that adult dog can rip out the throat of another dog, or intruder, or anyone he pleases. But will he attack his owner? No, because he doesn’t know that his owner is no longer twenty times bigger than he is. He’s been conditioned to be powerless to his master.

This conditioning works the same way for humans. Let’s say you’re a child with a violent father that beats or belittles you. It takes a long time until you grow up, and look down to find a wiry little bully, as pathetic and harmless as a cartoon character. It takes years to build up courage because you’ve gradually grown from a small child to an adult and didn’t realize he is no longer many times larger than you.

I was fortunate that nearly all the father figures in my life (bio dad, stepfather, grandfather) were even-tempered and loving. But there was this one guy my mother dated who does not get a name in this blog because he doesn’t deserve one. He will just be Mean Guy. How did he breeze in and take over our lives? It’s because of her father.

Back when my mother was very small and her father was comparatively very big, he was an abusive tyrant. Had he lived longer than his thirty-three years (she was eight) she probably would have grown to see that he was just a miserable little man. When you took away his “giant” adult size and the liquor that increased his bravado tenfold, he was a petty malcontent. But he died, and so in her mind he is, still to this day, a scary memory, ever present in his demeaning, cruel behavior.

After my stepfather left, when I was high school, Mom started dating Mean Guy. She brought him home to meet my brother and me. I didn’t like him. She, however, had never felt so close to someone. She felt “home” with him. It’s no surprise that early on, we saw that he drank a lot. He was abusive and cruel. He’d been in jail for the attempted murder of his first wife. I believe, “beat to death but came back to life” was the wording that kept it from being actual murder. Semantics.

My mother went to counseling and Alanon for a short time after my stepfather left and at the beginning of the Mean Guy relationship. The counselor told her she was “finishing the story,” both from her short time with her father, and then with my bio dad who had been in Vietnam like Mean Guy. The difference was that my bio dad didn’t routinely go crazy and try to kill people, and his day job wasn’t beating people up for bookies, and he didn’t wave around brass knuckles and hand guns to intimidate innocent teenagers. So the “story” was not really the same at all except that she had left my bio dad shortly after he returned from Vietnam, and maybe dating and loving this “poor lost soul” all these years later would balance the scales and give her closure.

Except it didn’t. And for ten years she was stuck in the climax scenes of a bad Lifetime Network movie. I was stuck in it too but had not been conditioned to fear or give in to people like him. I hated him and stood my ground which resulted in a great deal of friction. I had the “if you touch me you’ll go back to jail” card that I played quite often. I moved out at Year Three once I turned eighteen.

Mean Guy and Mom were evicted for noise on Year Ten and so she left him and got her own place. She has not dated since 1993 because she, “Doesn’t know how to pick men.” Rather she does not know how to differentiate from memories of past experiences and the reality of whoever is in front of her, snarling and manipulating. Was it really her relationship with Mean Guy that she could not afford to fail at, or someone else from an unfinished tragic story she too young to control? We all replay our life situations over and over until we realize that nothing changes if nothing changes. But there’s got to be a limit on this loop of self-destruction.

How does all this relate to dogs and bullies? Some dogs are walking around, perfectly happy until they see a guy with a hat, or a newspaper, or who wears the cologne of someone who abused them. They suddenly feel powerless and terrified. They are again an eight pound puppy who has no choice but to cower and do what the master wants, even if it’s not their master but merely someone who set off a trigger.

Dogs do not just walk out the door and say “I’ve had enough. I can get my own food. I can go to a shelter and they will take care of me until a nice master comes along and loves me and treats me right.” Dogs don’t do that and sadly a lot of people don’t either.

I know too many humans who stay in bad situations year after year saying they are afraid to leave because there will be retaliation, or they will miss the happy life their partners keep telling them they have, unaware of one major detail: the tragic reality of their life.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. At some point, you can stand tall, look down on your bully and pop his overblown ego like a balloon that will deflate and whither down to flaccid pink rubber.

PEOPLE ARE NOT DOGS. We have choices. We are not twenty times smaller than our partners, as they would have us believe. Words and meanness are all they have. If they had more than that, we would stay.

To all the people in emotionally or physically abusive relationships, just go. Take your stuff and walk away with your tail wagging, not between your legs. There are kind people out there and a better life; your current partner just doesn’t want you to know it.    

-As always, grateful to my Ryan for his perpetual kindness

-Carly G

The Simplicity of Gingerbread

Last week Ivy went to Massachusetts to visit family. She brought Trevor along as well. It was their first big trip away together, and his first time meeting her dad’s side of the family.

I was worried for a lot of reasons. The main ones are obvious: it might be too cold, or snowy. They wouldn’t have enough money, and they’d get stranded. She’d hurt herself. The last time she went back east she broke her foot in two places and I had to arrange doctor visits from 3000 miles away. My mother surely had the same concerns when I went to Jamaica at the same age, with Ivy’s dad, Arnie. We made it home plenty safe and I had to trust that she would too.

The biggest worry I had about this trip was about her seeing, and Trevor meeting, Arnie. When I met Arnie G. he was twenty-five and I was twenty-one. He was a free spirit and quirky. Easy to get along with, utterly brilliant, and he had freckles which was a plus because I really wanted my someday child to have brilliance and freckles.

But things go wrong sometimes and despite my blueprints for a perfect life, and despite my planning and lists, and my shooting for the stars, he…fell apart, irretrievably. It happened a few times and to quote Humpty Dumpty, no one could put him back together again. Sometimes he was fine and sometimes not. And the good days got fewer. Then there were drugs. No one can be sure if the drugs were a cause or symptom, a self-medicating treatment gone awry.

thAs the holidays near, and Ryan asks me if I want to make a gingerbread house, I think of Arnie and our early days, in our twenties. He was always up for anything, made a sincere effort to do what I asked, including helping me build my Martha Stewart Gingerbread Mansion. I could never keep it simple. I was always thinking big. I had a plan for my career, our house, our someday child. Everything arranged in checkboxes and columns.

My gingerbread mansion collapsed. It was uneven and the sugar glass windows were too heavy. The royal icing didn’t act like glue like the magazine promised. Later my married life also collapsed, maybe because I could not keep it simple. Understandably, I cannot control or fix someone’s mental illness or addiction which Alanon drilled into my head. But it must have been hard for Arnie to have me be so…Carly-esque, always striving for another goal, another milestone. I was taking the “don’t forget where you came from” advice and turning it on its head. I was certainly going to forget where I came from, come hell or high water, and everything was going to be different in my adult life.

So I don’t make gingerbread houses at all because I can’t do it well and don’t want to fail and as people sometimes tell me, I cannot just relax and have fun for fun’s sake. Admittedly I am not a fan of whimsy but am working on it.

Ivy and I have not seen Arnie since her high school graduation party. Physically he has changed dramatically from when we met, and now, when his muscular atrophy is so severe that he can’t walk without a cane and his hands are curled in and mostly useless. He also has a new symptom where his face twitches all the time (causing agony, he says).  In a perfect world, he would go to the doctor, and see specialists until they could straighten it all out, or at least make him more comfortable. But when you are a mostly homeless person, and you have addictions, and a record, and you struggle with mental illness, it’s not a level playing field when it comes to healthcare.

We didn’t see Arnie much throughout most of Ivy’s childhood. He was usually “not up to snuff” to use a euphemism. He’s had ups and downs. He’s in a good state now, is sober, texts and calls a lot. Ivy, like me, does not hate people for behavior they regret, if they try to fix it. th88UFI8QD

So she met him in Boston. Since she was three years old, she has only seen him twice without me there. And only for an hour or so each time.  I told Trevor he had to be the mom for me, keep an eye on things, pull her away if she was sad or he was “not up to snuff.”  But it was fine. She was sad because of his physical condition and the way he lives. But he was happy that day, and she was too.  I have a nice picture of them together, in the snow outside the Statehouse. There is something so genuine about his expression, the joy and pride in his face, that it’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking.  Despite his circumstances, he is impossibly happy in the now.  They are both the exact same people they were eighteen years ago in many ways. He is a proud father, and she, a loving little girl who cares only that he loves her. Beyond that, nothing matters.

After she got back to California and returned to Santa Barbara, once the smoke from the local fires finally eased up, she sent me a picture. She said “Trevor and I built a gingerbread house last night.” It was beautiful in that it wasn’t perfect. It was a happy, sloppy creation with gingerbread people outside it, their frosted smiles decorating the gingerbread yard.  There is even a peace sign frosted onto the gingerbread driveway. Very Ivy-esque.

gingerbreadShe is more grounded than me, is happy with right now. She does not (often) agonize over the future, or unrealistic goals she has set for herself or others. She doesn’t expect perfection in herself or others.

I can learn something from this, about the contrasts between her and me. Perhaps my painful “what not to do” life lessons have had the intended effect.

Her gingerbread house is likely to stand until she eats it or tears it down. I am proud of it, and her, and am inspired to try again and make one myself, with palm trees made of icing, and a structure that is both strong and yet imperfect, like me.

Happy baking!

-Carly G.