I hear a theme running through our correspondence of late.
Who am I? Where am I? What has changed since last year? What will change next year?
As if the end of the year isn't busy enough with Christmas parties and shopping and decorating, we also pack it full of self-examination and self-recrimination.
Friend 1: "I'm so mad at myself for this whole year, and for feeling like I haven't moved forward at all. Exhausted, worn out from travel, filling life with everything but the real work I need to do. Then I feel self-indulgent for saying that, because I have so many good things. I hate myself just listening to my complaints."
Friend 2: "I've been thinking about you and me the last two days. Where did we miss something along the way? Why is it always so hard for us? I'm trying to think of a time in my life when it wasn't hard....when it was easy to live. And what mistakes aren't I learning from? And what aren't I doing? And am I just a bad, selfish person (who) does NOT learn from mistakes at all."
I'd sent this email to Friend 1 the day before:
"I just keep thinking if God wanted something good to happen to me, then something good would happen. And then I go to this place where I think something awful happened to me because I'm a bad person. No, no. It's no use talking sense to me. I'm a bad person. That's where I go. Then I have to crawl back up the slippery slope and, unfortunately, that sucker is covered in butter."
That's what I want to write about today: the slippery slope. I have become well acquainted with it over the past two and a half years. I have become the master of sliding down it into a hole where any tiny flicker of hope is suffocated by the darkness.
I generally try to hide this side of myself from people. My mom gets a dose of it sometimes when I call her and cry. I try not to say out loud the things I think at night: This is my fault. I'm selfish because I want to be happy and move on. (I finally understand survivor's guilt, a concept that always baffled me before I survived something and felt guilty about it). Bad things happen to bad people. I'm a bad person.
I don't do this to myself as often as I did in the first year after Charles committed suicide. I have worked hard to pull myself out of that place, where I am solely to blame for a horrific tragedy. The crazy thing is that I almost immediately forgave the person who stood in front of me with a gun. Sure, I was angry with him some days. I wrote him notes in my journal. Dear Charles, I hate you today. Why did you do this to me? But mostly I forgave him because I knew he was in pain and he could only find one way out. He was in a hole where hope could not shine. I forgave him because it lightened the load on my heart to do so.
(For awhile, I did not realize the weight I was carrying by not forgiving myself.)
I continued to love him when I could not love myself.
I see that my friends do this to themselves, also. They worry that they are bad people, that they are selfish, that they aren't learning and changing and improving. That they should be punished for choices they make. "Bull shit!" I say to them in calls and emails. "You are amazing and wonderful and full of love! How could you think otherwise? I can see so clearly how kind and giving you are. Why can't you?"
I know they would say the same to me.
Yes, yes, I recognize the irony.
After Charles died, a couple of his friends and his father confessed to me their feelings that they were to blame in some way. NO! I exclaimed. Of course, you weren't. All along, secretly, I'd be whispering into the dark, "You are not to blame because I am. Can't you see that?"
Like Friend 1, I have spent it trying to move forward. Like Friend 2, I have spent it trying to figure out where I went wrong and how to fix it. I have tried to learn from my mistakes.
In the meantime, I sent out query letters to agents. I sent out my book proposal to those who asked for it. I have truly felt it is my purpose to write this story so that it can help that person out there who is like me, the one looking for a book that does not yet exist. I thought this was a no-brainer. It is not. It is, apparently, unmarketable.
Books about sparkly pedophiliac immortals and weak-willed virgins in rainy climes? Marketable.
A book about coming to terms with loss and love and forgiveness while listening to Luda? Unmarketable.
My latest slide down the slippery slope was prompted by the nicest rejection letter I have received so far from the most polite, considerate agent so far. (If you ever go looking for an agent, you will find that many of them will ask to read your proposal and, if they aren't interested in representing you, they will never contact you again. Because it's so difficult to hit send on a form rejection email.)
Here's my latest:
Hi Amy,So here's what happened next. Slide, slide, slippity slide, I do what I do just to survive. That's right. Coolio showed up. Not really. I just thought it was time for my favorite coping mechanism - a well-timed rap song and a joke to lighten the mood.
Thanks for sending along The Geography of You and Me. I really appreciate your patience these past few weeks while waiting for a response.
There's some good, smooth prose in these pages - in fact, the quality of writing is far superior to most of the material that crosses my desk. You make for a highly sympathetic protagonist and the memoir is at times heartbreaking and inspiring. It's with real regret, then, that I must admit that I've got reservations about my ability to place the project. I recently went out with a manuscript which, although different, does bear some marked similarities. Unfortunately, I was unable to find it a home. What with my recent experience, I suspect I wouldn't be the best advocate for your project. In spite of the book's strengths, I'd better bow out.
Amy, thanks so much for contacting me, and for giving me this opportunity. It is much appreciated, and I'm sorry to be passing. I hope another agent will have a better idea on how to see it successfully to market! Thanks again, and all the very best of luck on your road to publication.
Come on, y'all, let's take a ride. Don't you say shit, just get inside.
The slippery slope beckons.
At the top is the latest rejection. As nice as it is, as much as I have repeatedly read the words "far superior to most of the material that crosses my desk," I start sliding past this disappointment. I slide down past my bank account (it ain't pretty, folks) and past my retirement fund (a bag of cat food in the pantry and a cardboard box in the basement). I slide past the sign that reads: "I'm alone and I will never find love because I'm incapable of love." I slide past my soft stomach and my weakness for cream cheese. I slide past my foul mouth and my tendency to yell when the house gets messy. I slide past another sign: "All my skills are in an industry that is dying and I will never have another job in which I won't have to wear a vest with a name tag."
As I slide, these things come with me so that, at the bottom, they can pile up on top of me.
At the bottom is this: "You don't deserve love. You don't deserve success. You are a bad person."
And one last sign: "Good luck climbing back up. We have covered this slide in butter. Signed, The Management."
"It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head," Sally Kempton said. I have written about this quote before. It is an excellent reminder that my own worst enemy is within. No one in my life has ever said the mean things to me that I say to myself. No one has ever blamed me for Charles's death.
I see that my friends have enemies in their heads, too. They tell themselves ugly things that are not true. They slide down the slippery slope instead of dealing with the thing at the top of the slope, the issue of the day. Just that thing is all we have to deal with.
So why do we allow that thing, this one moment in a long life of moments, this shove from behind, to send us careening on a fantastic voyage? And I don't mean fantastic in the good sense, the "Damn, George, you sure look fantastic in that tuxedo" sense.
I mean this definition: REMOTE FROM REALITY, BIZARRE, OF EXTRAORDINARY SIZE. We make small things big. We turn falsehoods into truth.
We slam ourselves against the side of a slide that is taking us nowhere but down. Then we have to climb back up again.
I wish I had a secret method for climbing back up. Jacob heard me discussing my "slippery slope covered in butter" when I was on the phone with Friend 1 the other night. He said, "Mom, you start eating that butter! It's delicious!"
He's 15. He can eat butter without it giving him a big ass.
But he's onto something. The secret is to remember all the delicious things.
So I poured a glass of red wine. I was thankful I could still buy a bottle of cheap wine. I watched TV with the kids. I was thankful I have satellite and that my son has the same sense of humor as me. We both laugh our asses off while watching an episode of Psych or The Colbert Report or Community. I am thankful my son comes up to me frequently and says, "Do you want a hug?"
I am grateful for my daughter who is so beautiful I'm thinking about locking her in her room until she's 30. I'm thankful that she giggles at silly jokes, loves her friends, says to me frequently, "No, I love you more."
I remind myself to keep going, that there are always options. The most important thing is that I finish my book. I will focus on words like "far superior" and keep writing.
I'll remind my friends that they are beautiful people, inside and out. That each day that we get up and try again - to learn, to love one another, to laugh, to drink cheap wine, to make up interpretive dance routines to Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas" - is a good day, a day that matters. These good things matter
In other words, eat the butter, dammit. It's delicious.