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Whenever things get really bad in my life—really bad—I receive a sign that lets me know I’m not alone.
The first time I remember this happening was in 2001. My then-husband and I had gotten into a fight. He walked out and didn’t return. When I woke up the next morning, my wedding ring had somehow slipped off my pregnancy-swollen finger, and a page from a photograph album was lying on the floor of our bedroom. It held a card someone had sent my husband years earlier. The card read, “please remember the good times.”
I didn’t yet know that my husband had driven to an old house and committed suicide immediately after our fight.
The next message came twelve years later. I’d finally worked up the courage to enter a serious relationship, my first since Jay’s suicide. Steve and I had been together four years when I found out he was cheating, courting a woman half his age, promising her he’d leave me if she would take him (she didn’t; at 20, she had fantastic instincts).
My world grew dark and lonely after Steve and I broke up. It stayed that way until one early morning, pre-sunrise. I was walking my dog. Ahead, I spotted a glowing circle on the ground, a child’s flashlight left on even though the city had been asleep for hours. I picked up the lantern and brought it home.
My personal darkness began receding that day.
Three years later, I was forced back into a job that strangled me. I’d had a year off to write full time, gotten a taste of the creative, passion-filled life, but I couldn’t make a financial go of it, not as a single mom. I mourned on my walk to work my first day back, kicking my feet. One punt unearthed a small glass globe, a marble-sized earth. I lifted it up the sun.
I held the whole world in my hand.
All three of these messages were hopeful, empowering. Remember the good times. Find the light. Know your worth. Then came the fall of 2016. I was walking my dog again, deep in my head, imagining a bright future. We were about to have our first female president of the United States.
Something caught my eye just ahead, something bright embedded in the dirt.
I reached for it.
It was a tiny helmet.
The two years after the election leveled me. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism were winning on the world stage, and (unsurprisingly) they were terrible sports about it. Fear and Fox News were in charge, and they gloated at our pain.
The political and the personal merged when I finally screwed up the courage to confront my mom, dad, and sister about our toxic family secrets—alcoholism, drugs, sexual abuse, protecting my father from the consequences of his behaviors. I'd been pushing off that meeting for years, but then the unaddressed behaviors and pain began showing up in the next generation, as they always do (we deal with our problems, or our problems deal with us). I had to speak up.
“Nobody has done anything unforgivable,” I said, my voice shaking as I spoke the words I’d rehearsed a hundred times on the drive over, “and we've all played our part, but it's time to come clean because these secrets are hurting the people we love.”
They were not able to hear it.
Not only have I not seen the three of them since, but when I reach out to my mom every few months asking her to visit a counselor with me, she attacks, constructing elaborate lies to make sense of why she feels betrayed. The simple answer—because I told—demands too much accountability from her, so this woman who was my biggest champion, who until that family meeting I had spoken to every week for 46 years, my mother, calls me evil in very personal ways, each with enough fleck of truth that I can’t function for days after.
My family destruction didn’t happen in a vacuum. The 2016 United States election was a mammoth hairy hand ripping the blanket off the world's ugliness, forcing us all to either claim our stories and march toward the light or double down in our darkness. And so it is that one of my closest friends (and one of the world's best moms) finds herself fighting for parenting rights in a system that doesn't recognize non-biological lesbian mothers; my husband is confronting his own false family narrative as his father was discovered, alive but weak, on the floor of his hoarding home; so many of my friends are sharing their stories of being sexually assaulted that it seems as though there isn’t one of us who escaped.
The news shows us all writhing in this painful reality that we think cannot possibly get worse.
And then it does.
The latest sign reached me the month before the midterms. It was the first message I’d received since the tiny helmet.
I found myself in San Francisco teaching an editing workshop held the day the nation discovered that Brett Kavanaugh was being confirmed as Supreme Court justice, despite (or possibly because of?) credible accusations of sexual assault leveled against him, despite lying under oath, and despite throwing a pitch-perfect entitlement tantrum during his job interview for "one of nine people in the nation who should never, under any circumstances, throw a pitch-perfect entitlement tantrum.”
My hopelessness couldn't even.
At the end of this depressing day, I saw a woman lean over to one of the workshop organizers. She asked if she could make an announcement. The organizer nodded. That woman, Dr. Ellen Kirschman, stood, turned to the room of 50, and said, her voice shaking, "I stand with Dr. Blasey Ford. I haven’t told anyone but my husband this, but five decades ago, I was raped by two men. My story will be published on the Psychology Today blog, and I’d be honored if you’d read it and share it."
Then she fell back into her seat.
Some other announcements were made, I'm not sure what. The workshop ended. We all rushed toward Ellen, hugged her. But then something happened, something I still cannot fully explain. Ellen’s integrity and her story had unleashed something. We began to talk—really talk, in a vulnerable, sacred way—to cry, to laugh too loud, to take jubilant photos together. Looking back, I believe we were holding an impromptu funeral for the stories and shame we'd been carrying that had never been ours. If that funeral had a banner, it would be Fuck This Shit, Finally and Forever.
In that space, as we handed our shame back to its true owners (here, I think you dropped this) and claimed our own stories in its stead, we grew dangerous and grand.
In this safe and kick-ass circle of women and community, I realized I was holding the next sign, the first since the helmet, gifted to me by a friend earlier in the workshop.
“I found this on a walk," she’d said, sliding it over. "I was going to keep it because it reminded me of my mom, but something told me I needed to give it to you."
It was a miniature of the Eiffel Tower.
The tower built celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution.
I was familiar with the history. Leading up to the revolution, the government was being mismanaged by its unqualified leaders, the environment was so ill-used that crops were failing, the Catholic church was abusing its power. The working class was paying an unfair burden in body, thought, and money, while the very wealthy paid little. Women were treated as passive citizens, entirely dependent on the whims of men.
Massive inequalities and discrimination drove people to a breaking point. They began to come together in the cafes, kitchens, and corners, sharing their stories. From this community rose a revolution.
It’s a good sign.
This article first appeared in Shattering Glass: A Nasty Woman Press Anthology, available wherever books are sold.
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