Letting Go of All the Versions of Me to Reveal… Me

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Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

I spent a majority of my life trying to be several different people, all at once. It maybe all started with what I call a success-hybrid I created as a kid. Someone would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I’d say, “A doctor-writer-veterinarian.” As I got older I adored to try new things. I played soccer for a year. I played the clarinet for 3 years. Theater and singing lasted longer, almost 8 years. I took on International Studies as a minor for a semester and dropped it almost immediately. I am a girlfriend, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a best friend, I work during the day, and write at night.

All those years I always compartmentalized who I was. If I was in a relationship but my friends were single, I would insist we not talk about my boyfriend. I didn’t want them to think I was actually that sensitive. (But I am.) I wouldn’t talk about my writing with my friends at the gym. I hardly ever mentioned my outside interests at work. It could seem at times even wrong to do so. I operated each piece of myself on its own.

Which ultimately started to drive me crazy because it was impossible to balance my time. Sometimes being a girlfriend took up three more hours than I had planned for. And so I couldn’t be a writer that day. Or I’d have to work late, and not be a friend that day. I have no idea why I did this, but I did. It wasn’t until the last year, maybe two, that I noticed it and attempted to stop it.

I asked my friends to welcome my boyfriend into our friend circle more fully, I made very close and dear friends at work, I told my superiors when I had work published so we could all celebrate. Instead of one or the other I was getting closer to the idea of me that I had as a child, I could be a couple things and it would be alright.

By removing my own compartments, I am a much happier person. My time doesn’t need to be parceled out hour by hour. My planner has become less precious to me. I write in the same room as my boyfriend. I am writer-girlfriend. I share my poems with my co-workers. I am poet-coworker. I make friends at work and introduce them to my boyfriend. I am coworker-girlfriend-friend. The more I combine my passions closer to one another the more like myself I feel. Every time I do not compromise one part of me for another, I glow. The tighter I wind in, pulling it all back, the more complete and whole I feel.

It turns out that I don’t need to be one person for each scenario. I just need to be me, in my entirety, and I will be happy. The closer I can get to my own core, the closer I get to being truly happy with the life I have built.

 

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Guest Post: Tiny Superstitions

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This is kind of a ghost story.

It’s about memories and magic, and it’s about all the ways my mother taught us to believe in small bits of wonder. It’s about hoping for the best while facing the worst, and it’s about pattern-seeking behavior. I lost my mother to cancer on December 29, 2017, after eight years of battling colon cancer. I have been trying to write this personal essay since March 2016.

This is for you, Mom. I will always leave the rocking chair rocking if you’d like to come and sit.

I have always been drawn to ghost stories. I have always been drawn to any strange or unusual story, any bump in the night that would have me. While this isn’t altogether unusual — who doesn’t love a mystery, or a sense in a world beyond what we see? — I have started to suspect I am drawn to them in a different way. So often, we are taught to be frightened of the unknown. Cautionary tales flourish in this genre, small words to protect us from our own darkest natures. Don’t go into the woods alone at night without a lantern. Don’t eat things a stranger gives you. Don’t give in to the desperation of these times.

I find in these stories solace, rather than terror. Not that we tell them, but that they exist at all. I think being drawn to the unknown comes not solely from a destructive urge to gaze into the abyss, but from the thrilling notion that we can challenge everything. Not every secret is known, and not every outcome is written in the stars. If there are things beyond what we can see, then there are things we see right in front of us that might be part of something big and mysterious, too.

The unknowable thing in my life for nearly a decade has been the cancer in my mom’s body. I have spent my adult life holding lantern in its wilderness, the shadows cast around me scattering fear and hope tangled endlessly into the brambles. I am not an expert in anything, not grief nor medicine nor other people’s stories. But I have clumsy hands and a clumsy heart, and if I can add a story to the string of tales that have brought me comfort, I might as well try.

We are, as humans, inclined to seek patterns in the day-to-day. My mom was no exception. Her combination of Biblical knowledge, a Farmer’s Almanac approach to weather, and allegorical stories of a childhood in the deep, deep South have created a bevy of tiny myths and superstitions in my family. It’s the kind of miniature magic you don’t think about very hard while it’s happening. A handful of these include:

1) Bubbles in your coffee mean money’s coming.

2) Eating greens, pork, and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day ensures a good year.

3) Leave your pumpkins lit all night on Halloween, and your Christmas lights lit all night on Christmas Eve.

4) Never rock an empty rocking chair, or you’ll invite a ghost to sit in it.

5) Seeing a cardinal is a sign of good fortune.

I told her all the time that she was superstitious. She laughed or rolled her eyes as I tempted fate a thousand times a day.

“It’s not superstition,” Mom said, “It’s wisdom. And at any rate, even if I’m wrong, it doesn’t hurt anybody.” This comment was often accompanied by coffee or prayer. Or both.

I often marveled at her quiet determination in all these tiny rituals. Even as I grew to be an adult, it seemed like she held the understanding of the universe in her long fingers, somehow. I realize, of course, that some of the things I consider rituals are just things she liked and did over and over, so now I revere them simply because my mother did them. Some of the things she did were precisely because she was a mother.

6) She served spaghetti and grapes on Halloween. “Brains” and “eyeballs” to spook us a little, but also a very sneaky way to carbo-load her children so they didn’t get sick on candy later in the evening.

7) She rang bells on Christmas morning to wake us up.

8) She did the laundry in a complicated array of batches based on color, water temperature, usage, size, and the weather.

9) She gathered us together before a big trip, no matter what time of day or night, to hold our hands and pray for our safety.

10) She pointed out fairy rings in the yard after hard rains.

I’ve developed my own superstitions here and there over the years, and I see signs and patterns in lots of things, too. I made my own kind of miniature magic, though it closely resembles hers. I have jewelry for good luck, and I have quiet mantras for certain days of the year. I try not to upset the order of the universe too gravely by trying to pretend I understand the future or second-guessing rainy days.

I guess this wasn’t a ghost story so much as it was a memory story. Though what’s a ghost but a memory so strong you can feel it moving through the world? It still stands as a cautionary tale, though. Don’t give in to the desperation of these times. Create your own tiny rituals, or borrow someone else’s until they feel real to you. Hold hope in your heart no matter what’s happening around you. If my mom hadn’t taught me that lesson, I am not sure how I’d carry on now without her.

I have one final bit of magic to share with you. It’s just a pattern, but that doesn’t mean it’s not big and mysterious in its own way. On the morning after I found out my mom had cancer, it snowed hard. It was early October in Iowa, and it hadn’t been in the forecast. I didn’t own a car in Iowa City since I lived downtown, so I trudged to work in knee-high boots and cried. I am convinced the snow was trying its damnedest to hide my sorrow as I crossed the last intersection to work.

Later that day, an old friend called me, and in the course of that conversation, we arranged for him to come visit from my hometown. He was an old boyfriend, another film school junkie who stayed up too late and worried too much, but he knew my mom and he knew me, so it was good to be able to share that time together.

The day before my mom passed away, it snowed. It was a light snow in late December, but the forecast had missed it by almost a week. That old friend was with me again — now my husband — as we held hands, because he knew my mom and he knew me, and it was good to be together.

 

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Sarah Caputo is an artist and teacher working in Oklahoma City. Her most recent creative focus has been on representations of memory, love, and folklore. Sarah posts her drawings, comics, and other misadventures frequently on Instagram (@tiny.revelations). You can also contact her at sarah.tinyrevelations@gmail.com.

Essay: Sad French Movies

Publicly sharing my non-fiction is literally what my nightmares are made up of. But in my constant fight to open myself to new possibilities and to grow as a writer I have to actually let me writing be read. I am starting a writing class next week on Narrative, taught by one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Chloe Caldwell. Since I had to submit a piece to be accepted and this one made the cut, I figured it was safe to share.

SAD FRENCH MOVIES

There is a night you take me to see a Sad French Movie. Catherine Deneuve is in it and every line of the movie is sung. It’s like a musical, but more so. It’s about falling in love and how life then pulls everything apart piece by piece, like the unraveling of a sweater by each thread. You are always taking me to movies at Film Forum, and you are always forgetting the card that gets us discounted snacks. So we never get snacks. I watch a lot of snackless movies there in those old musty seats.

The movie ends at a snowy gas station and the couple can’t be together because they’re married to other people. They’re all so sad but they’re still singing every word that leaves their mouths. Still singing in the snow. Still singing even though their love failed. The ending makes me sad too, but I guess that is the point of a Sad French Movie, to make life feel very heavy.

Though I am feeling very down, you must be feeling romantic because we walk for three avenues to find a place to have a bottle of red. We never do stuff like this, but we’ve been broke since we got together so we don’t know how to do stuff like this. As soon as the first glass hits my bloodstream, I am weepy. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life. I feel stuck. Where am I supposed to go? I forget how weepy red wine makes me. The restaurant is Argentinean and we are the only people not eating.

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From My Notebook // Brutal, Calculating, Savage (and Domestic) Cats

I’ve decided to be brave for the hell of it and share some non-fiction drafts on the blog. So this is my first stab at sharing a free write from my journal. Other than some minor editing for grammar and logic, the below is a pretty rough cut of the things I enjoy writing and, if I can find more time to do it, will be submitting. It’s been awhile since I was published and I’d love to try again soon.


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Backyard Biology 

My brothers and I used to watch our cats eat small prey in our backyard. The bravery and brutality of their actions grabbed us from play every time we saw one bounding across the lawn chasing a mouse or a mole. They all hunted, but I was only afraid of Kirby, her nastiness did not stop with the rodents. I had nightmares of her clawing me apart.

If we weren’t paying attention we could come across a dead body at any given time.  I could be jumping rope or exploring the beds beneath a cloister of pine trees and come face-to-face with death. Little furry deaths. Blood and guts are fine, if you’re prepared to come across them. I often worried that one day I would finally step on one that was still alive.

I did enjoy finding the moles. Mice made me ill (something about the tail) and chipmunks were too cute. Their deaths made me sad. But moles captured my attention. Moles I could study all day long. Even if their limp bodies had surprised me on my way to the basketball hoop. They were sleek and slender– if they weren’t shredded– and they looked as though they had sat in the rain all night. Maybe they were newborn babies, or just slick with saliva, but I always remember them as damp and weak. They had flat spaces on their foreheads where eyes should go, but no eyes to go there.

They were helpless, but I was still grateful to the cats. With their precision, cruelty, and boredom, I would have never had the chance to see moles up close. Had they not sought them out and murdered them right there on the lawn, I would have had to rely on Encyclopedia pictures at school. It cost many mole lives to teach me backyard biology.

The yard was littered with bodies because the cats were extreme exhibitionists. They would often catch and try to bring half-dead animals into the house. As if they knew we enjoyed the last moments of the kill. Kirby once succeeded and brought in a bloody and stunned chipmunk. It started zigzagging across the living room like a drunk after a bar fight. Confused and trailing blood.

Sometimes they’d get impatient and just dump the bodies on our steps. Or they’d get greedy and hide them in the garden. My father walking to the woods with a shovel full of dead bodies is a repeat memory.

Though the best kills were always when the cats were feeling proud. This is when they’d bring their fresh kill to wherever my brothers and I happened to be playing. They’d sit near us and begin systematically tearing the rodents apart. Like a science lesson. Maybe they could sense our eagerness to watch.

Because we always did.

Our favorite part of the whole ordeal was always the first crunch into the rodent’s skull. Hearing tiny bones give way to tiny brains at the whim of our cat’s mouth was a satisfying sound. As satisfying as the crunch of gravel when our dad came home from work late at night, or the sound of our mother spading dirt from the garden, hitting small stones along the way down into the ground. Sounds that meant something was happening. Sounds that I can still feel.

We’d wait for the crunch and cheer. Maybe slap each other on the back. Maybe gag just a bit to be polite of the life lost. And then we’d go back to playing, waiting for the cat to inevitably throw up its fresh kill.

My brothers once told me that Max threw up a still beating heart while I had been at a sleepover. I don’t know if they made it up to make me feel bad for going away, but I’ve always regretted that random birthday party. I had missed the most epic kill of all.