When you're young, you seek the praise that good girl provides. The warm space away from bad where after-dinner-cookies, and picking -out-a-new-doll, live. It strikes me, in hindsight, that a lot of people shed that addiction to gold-stars with childhood: for people who weren't me, adolescence brings pimples, bad hair, awkward metallic first kisses and the opportunity to shed good for something more exciting. I didn't have time to try personalities like 90s slap-bracelets--or at least I never felt like I did--so I picked the path of least-resistance. Good. But good, now that I'm older and still struggling to find my inner-way, wasn't good enough.
What I'm learning in therapy is how much our childhood informs who we are today---and who we are, at our most conflicted. I can point to the moments where I stood frozen, unsure what to say that would make everyone happy so I said nothing at all. Or when I would share my notes during a debate and wait for someone else to make the points that were most controversial. Just last night, I couldn't fall asleep; too busy revisiting a friendship lost eight years ago. The good girl who can't forgive herself for her trauma response. The girl who ruminates on every moment she didn't speak her mind (and every moment she did). I find myself wondering what I could have been, if I hadn't chosen good.
Because, let's face it: being good has taken more than it has given. Being good has been living under a magnifying glass of my own design; one eye darting above me like a raincloud. Being good is synonymous with exhausted and defensive and afraid.
Just the same, the pressure of being good destroys whatever foundation you thought you were building. A home cannot be built on gold stars; when you spend all your time trying to be good you miss the opportunities to try funny, afraid you might offend someone. You miss dangerous, for fear of making a mistake. You miss angry because it's much easier to blame yourself. You miss selfish, for obvious reasons. You miss human for fear of being a burden or because you just want everyone else to be happy or so no one will judge you.
You believe if you are small, unassuming, and good enough, you won't be a problem. As if good is a means for control. I think you hope good makes you invisible. But you are still carbon-based, still breathing and invisible doesn't last (the desire or the superpower). If good is the absence of bad, you are only as successful as the bad you keep at bay. And so you don't make problems for others but you surely build problems for yourself.
Being good bottles up and turns into emotional-delay, resentment, disappointment, regret. It turns into self-sabotage and hurting the wrong people. And, mostly, hurting yourself.
My husband tells me nice is boring. He's not wrong. But it's what I was taught to value. Nice was safe. I sought out nice people and aimed to be one. And, when I failed (when I was wrong, as we sometimes are), I wouldn't know how to get back on track. I would flounder: confused yet determined, expecting that the issue was me. I had failed at being good enough. I hadn't learned how to aggressively advocate for myself. I hadn't learned that giving up your seat didn't always make you noble. I didn't understand the value in putting my own oxygen-mask first.
Good is the fairytale ending. It's a fairytale principle: Princesses of yore would sit around aimlessly, slaves to their circumstances, until a godmother or dwarves with baser instincts (angry, sleepy, dopey) would advocate for them. And they would be given permission to follow their bliss, an endless stream of luck, and a Prince Charming who would love them (all of them, somehow, all Princes' named Charming). The obvious conclusion is that good is supposed to earn you points. Good is supposed to make for good outcomes. But no one else is keeping score.
And so, if I have a daughter, I won't use good as praise. I will hope I have created a safe enough space for her to be all of the other things you get to be, when you let go of the score card, and all the gold stars, and slip on an adjective that fits better.
Fall feels different, this year. An impenetrable orange. A Saturday in Boston and a Sunday building a pantry from scratch, with my love. Nights walking through the Old Rez, hand-in-hand, in sweaters and picking out pumpkins at Wilson Farm.
Our home is starting to have that perfect lived-in quality, where the wood molds to the shape of your feet and the lights see you coming. Where the staircases start singing and the kitchen starts to riddle off your grocery list. As if to say we belong here. As if to say the walls have been here since the Revolution and we can start our own revolution in the living room.
We sign contracts, each line of our pen another root we choose to lay. We build routines and get our butts on the Peloton. We drive on the expressway and paint-by-numbers; the trees flirting in yellows and burnt reds. It is too beautiful. Baked goods to neighbors and feeling community brewing, beautiful. Filling the squares on the calendar with dates and friends and forever, beautiful.
And so it begins, as the other chapter ends. But as the beginning and the always blur against autumn-eyes, we will continue to shape all that comes next. Oh, October, you are such a chameleon. Last year, you gave and you took away. This year, you give with both hands and, I know, I clutch them too fervently. Grateful as ever for the kind of sunset where stars peek from behind their bedtime stories and the cresent of the moon flips into a smile.
This October, a year after our wedding, has come with more changes than I can hold in my hands. I remember our wedding in flashes; light and dark in an unending wind spiral. For all intents and purposes, last October saw the whole world fall. And, as the life we had tried so hard to build crumbled around us, just as it was beginning, I desperately grasped onto this invisible hope. Hope that we would survive the vulnerability of barren trees. Hope that there would be a time beyond the deepest sadness I have ever known.
And now, a year later, I write about the year that's past with a little more clarity--albeit a forever heartache.
We talk about how lucky we are, with a hindsight that shackles our legs to the ground, as if--after the year that tried, in vain, to break us--our mere survival is a victory. We know, now, how to do the hardest things. A team. A pair. A partnership. But we never got that newly-wed phase. We never got to rest our heads, relax our shoulders, and lean into one another. Instead, the year that followed our wedding was full of landmines.
So much so that the breaking heart I was a year ago would never believe where we are today. In a little yellow house. The happiest house in all the land.
The magic of the little yellow house is domestic bliss as husband calls it. It's that feeling of being newly-wedded as we unpack unopened wedding gifts, hang photos, and create new routines. It's a second chance at the beginning we always imagined. The little yellow house is my heart living out loud: giving my husband the office where he will do amazing things, building a music room, filling the kitchen with an island and The Weepies. The little yellow house has two staircases and a laundry machine--a deck wide enough for a grill and a little shed large enough to hold a million dreams. This feels like the place it all begins. Where the office can become a nursery, the deck can host parties; where we can dance in the kitchen without fear of bumping into walls.
And so, these changes, an embarrassment of riches, fall through my fingers like the rainbow that greeted us at the Massachusetts border; gift upon gift upon gift. The little yellow house does, in its own way, return to us a beautiful October full of orange-turning trees, giant stars, and the smell of petrichor so sweet it could bring a city girl to tears. And we begin again. Though we never ended. Again. A full rotation on its axis. Spinning madly on. Right back to October. And onward, now.
You really are the big easy: our smiles were easier, our hearts were lighter, our bellies fuller. Thank you.
You know who you are; who you truly are.
Goodbye. Two years, an open floor-plan, a gas leak, the ceiling falling, dinner dates, rooftop adventures, projector movie nights, the annual quarantine talent show, a zoom marriage, a new business. To a million stories.
Thank you for pina coladas and pool parties. A Fourth of July we'll remember forever. We are so lucky to have you.
Dear New York,
It has been a decade: 10 years of finding and recreating dreams, too many odd jobs, learning about myself, making forever friends and letting friendships go; college, grad-school, teaching, learning, Columbia, playwriting, 54 Below, trains, cupcakes, Harney & Sons. Broadway. Getting married, weekends away, walking for donuts, cardigans. You will always hold a special place in my heart as the one who solidified me in this form (as the person I am).
Hands up in the backseat of the convertible with you, reenacting The Perks of Being a Wallflower was beyond my wildest dreams. Infinite. Happy 30th birthday, friend.
Dear North Carolina,
You were sweet, sunflower-filled and so different from how remembered you. But you were also cottages and cute streets, and our first musical in a year-and-a-half. You did not become, for us, what we had envisioned (after looking for apartments and getting jobs) but you were a reminder of all we are doing to find our way, to stay the course, and to love one another.
You make sense of the nonsensical. You make days fun, restaurants easy, find the twenty-five cent martinis and make galavanting in the middle of all the bright lights as sunshiney as ever.
We are burying you. Like Carl Jung says, we don't solve our problems, we get bigger than our problems. And we are bigger than all of this.
Around the world in 29,000 steps, with dear friends and big eyes. What a wonderful world.
Dear Final Week of Summer,
Who knows what you have in store but---ready or not, here you come.
the last stop on the onward now tour. we've spent two months driving from new york to get here: eight states, fifteen shows, one car-robbery, seven acts of kindness, and we made it. to the top of the space needle.
as the elevator door closes, you turn to me and say, i can't wait another second. marry me? it takes 41 seconds to get to the top of the observation deck but we wouldn't know because we haven't stopped kissing to breathe. as the elevator doors ding open, i say yes.
we have an itinerary full of planned activities and a sushi date on the agenda but we hop a ferry across the puget sound to olympic national park and find ourselves in the middle of hoh rainforest. we also explore the westernmost and northwesternmost points of the contiguous united states, bringing stones from both points to connect the points, like we've connected our hearts, ourselves, our homes.
First thing's first, I'm an idealist.
I paint my nails in stardust and read my favorite books until their spines have ripped pages from each vertebrae; dress my walls with more promises than I've ever been taught to paint. I hold gulps of air in my cheeks for the sunrise. Chocolate cake, sunflowers...anything breathtaking. I like to be prepared.
I wore a purse on the first day of teaching. Filled it with too many expectations. It was too heavy for my commute: When I put it on the ground by my feet on the C train, I heard them whisper calm down to one another, not knowing what the words meant but hoping it would halt the bouncing.
I packed my bags to the brim but light enough to keep flitting from daydream to daydream. Threw my hands out windows on the Pacific Coast Highway just to know what it would feel like to fly. Played Never Have I Ever in an Irish hostel where every brick and bedframe was, too, once never. Etched reminders, like mantras, into outstretched arms hoping this pain would be the last--that each pain would be the last.
I wrote promises into a paper ring, in a field of trees whose leaves danced to the key of falling. The air smelled of impending rain but Mother Nature waited until we had said our vows; a courtesy not shared by all mothers. The disappointment these hands have held can be whittled down to nothing with a biting tongue and firm mallet but we are all still piecing together the parts of ourselves we are trying to protect; the rubble left after the hurricane.
I am the daughter of honeycombs and dragons. Everyday we decide who we will be and how we will get there. Everyday. We decide.
Inspired by a Thought Catalogue piece.
The truth is we outgrow those who don’t appreciate us. Those who are okay with our absence. Those who allow the distance between us and them to grow. We outgrow those who make us feel like we’re replaceable. Who make us question our worth.
The truth is we outgrow those who aren’t genuine with us. Those who say things they don’t mean. Those who speak of grandeur but whose actions fall flat . Those who only like a certain side of us but don’t want to accept our many facets. Those who don’t care about our wants and needs because they’re too busy focusing on their own.
We outgrow those who make us feel like an inconvenience. Those who are capable of giving so much more but choose to withhold with us. Those who put us last on their list of priorities. We outgrow those who are lazy with us. Who take us for granted. Who show us that they’re not invested. That they don’t want to try. We outgrow those who don’t value us the way we want to be valued.
The truth is we reach a point where we know who we are, what we want and what we deserve and we’re not willing to go back to selling ourselves short again. We’re not willing to repeat the same vicious cycle of handing out our hearts to those who don’t know how to catch them. We are capable of giving someone we love the world but all we need is the reassurance that they won’t abuse it, that our hearts are secure with them, that they won’t turn into another lie or another mistake.
The truth is we outgrow those who don’t know how to love us. We outgrow those who tell us everything we need to hear but show us nothing. We outgrow those who don’t love us because it took us years to learn how to love ourselves and we’re not ready to ruin that by being with people who make us question who we are or if we’re worthy of their love.
The truth is that all love, all relationships, take effort. Must be fertilized with basic human decency. Trimmed and watered. Require sunlight to grow.
When you just survive your childhood, you don’t learn the growing up skills that your contemporaries do. You don’t learn how to be funny because funny might offend. You don’t learn how to be outspoken because outspoken might mean trouble. You don’t learn to try and fail because failure isn’t an option.
You don’t learn your value, you learn to accomplish and to look up for approval. You learn to keep quiet unless the thing you have to say will benefit the people around you.
So you push. You stick to something practical. You create your own space. And you find your own happy. Often that happy is enhanced by making others happy. By treating people the way you want to be treated.
But I never learned how to cope with toxicity. I learned how to fight against it. I would try to remedy or rectify or redesign and, if all of that didn’t work, I would run away. Fight then flight.
When you just survive your childhood, your lifeline is the black and white of your brain’s moral compass: good or bad. Right or wrong. Yes or no.
But, what to do when flight isn’t an option? You never learn living in purgatory. In the in-between.
When you just survive your childhood, you spend enough time playing pretend, convincing everyone—even yourself—that it’s okay, that, when you grow up, you can’t imagine pretending for another second. You seek people like you. People who want to build the kind of life you’ve been dreaming about since you were old enough to dream. And, some mornings, you wake up before the sun only to whisper to your youngest self , you found the one to build it with.
But, even when you plan and execute, and dream, there are things you can’t control for (no matter how hard you try). When you just survive your childhood, you try to control for everything. So that, when you have children, you can give them the everything you needed. You still need, some days.
So that, in your adulthood, you can rebuild a foundation strong enough to hold both you and your imagination. You give. Deeply. Desperate for a return, from the people of your adult life. Afraid to repeat a past you didn’t pick. Some pandemics are international and some are internal. In both you learn to survive.
But, when you just survive your childhood, you do things in the wrong order. You give before it is deserved, you fight harder than you’re supposed to. You don’t understand when things don’t work out. You create simple expectations and tack value to them: If I get the lead, people love me, If I get straight A’s I’m going to live in New York someday, If I run eight miles people will think I’m beautiful. If they call, they apologize, they wear burgundy, we matter. Arbitrary but everything. Everything but arbitrary.
And, without the skills to better pretend, your sleeves are bright red and thumping with every heartbeat. You’re inside out. Your palms are scarred. It’s a big deal.
When you just survive your childhood, you’re used to being misunderstood. To people forgetting that you’re a person. In fact, you know they will (but you hope they won't). They will forget that you have feelings if they don’t love you. And maybe this is just the value you’ve tacked to it. But that’s your truth. That’s everything. You don’t know how to have boundaries, how to give a little, how to pretend.
And to learn diminishes you--
Diminishes everything you’ve survived.
You have brought more confusion, chaos, heart-ache, healing, drama, peace, promise, love, loss, laughter, than a year should. But, when I struggle, most, to wrap my head around it, I focus on the good. On all that is still standing. I am grateful. For cuddle breaks, new recipes, new students, the way it sounds to say husband and wife, the magic of finding a new rhythm, as a new us.
You brought a perfect weekend and, with it, a million memories. Thank you for the kind of weather I had never imagined, a world of people who did everything to make sure the evening went off without a hitch and so many of the everythings we dreamed up.
Dear Scrapbook Paper,
You made advisory better, my activities livelier, and place settings more Pinterest-perfect!
Thank you for dancing in the kitchen, for singing the greatest co-MOH speech in the history of speeches (autotune and all), and for all of the ways we are alike and all of the ways we differ. I don't know how I got so lucky.
Dear Cinnamon Tea,
Thank you for being warm and comforting. No matter the time.
Thank you for being the greatest officiant a girl could ask for. And, even more, for being my brother in New York. For dinner dates and late night chats. I am so grateful you are here.
Thank you for teaching me what is real and true. For showing me, again, what I ignored the first time.
Thank you for keeping my secrets.
Thank you for marrying me. For the first kiss of my dreams. For being my partner in this crazy life. Together, we can do anything. I know that. Always.
My brother moved to New York! Now there are two hazel eyes, pointy-chinned ballabusters pounding the pavement. On our first Sunday together, we initiated Sunday brunches with two special guests! Our Baltimore babes!
A bagel board, mimosas, and our sweet rooftop getaway; with the view of lady liberty and a bee that just wouldn't quit. And then, even when Shira and Gabe drove back to Baltimore, Ben just walked back to his Manhattan apartment. I don't know if that will ever get old--knowing that my brother is just across the bridge! That all of the plans we want to make don't have an expiration date but can come and go as they please. What a gift, to have family around.
This is Me:
My name's Melissa. I'm the girl with her hands in her journal. Married to my best friend and planning a lifetime of adventure!