The Things We Cannot Handle

Alone in the bathtub, my hands burned when they hit the water, raw from scrubbing with alcohol from containers suspended along the hospital walls. I had pressed the thin metal bar, over and over, obsessive and Pavlovian, every time I entered or exited the room. I needed some security, some protection, some kind of relief and had been scrubbing my hands red for six days. My 18-month-old daughter was still on an IV, slowly recovering from the virus she caught while we were in the hospital for what was supposed to be a routine MRI; a routine MRI, to scan for a brain tumor after we noticed a slight misalignment in her eyes.

“Routine, routine, routine,” I had repeated to myself on the days leading up to the appointment, but the words, “brain” and “tumor,” together, were not routine, for my head or my heart.

My husband stayed at her bedside that night, while I took the train across Berlin, back to our apartment for a single night off, to relax, take a bath, sleep in my own bed, and contemplate the last days. It was one of those early heat waves that came on, almost too sudden, as though the seasons shifted, the year moved on, while we were stuck in time. For five nights I had watched my daughter from behind the jail cell crib that reminded me we were in an Old East German hospital. The stale room, the linoleum floors, plastic curtains, and cold furniture, were also utilitarian and unforgiving.

Outside the Kinderklinik, the hospital grounds felt like time travel to another period, the manicured gardens, classic architecture erected in 1710, by order of King Frederick I of Prussia, after the anticipation of the bubonic plague. This was only relevant to me in hindsight, as I tried to make sense of feeling so out of time, out of place.

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Charité Campus Virchow-Klinikum in Berlin.

We were staying in the pediatric neurological ward, in rooms mostly occupied by parents and children with serious and debilitating disorders, hooked up to feeding tubes, wrapped in gauze after brain or eye surgery, or supine on rolling beds. My daughter seemed so healthy, so out of place. I still remember the neurosurgeon’s first words when he came in for her examination, “Oh, she can walk,” surprised that she passed this basic developmental milestone.

I was convinced that our visit was simply a formality, swift and perfunctory; the doctor’s would give her a cursory “All clear,” or “Alles gut” and release. I was even prepared for them to tell us she would need glasses or one of those eye patches that seem so common nowadays. Maybe we could find one in pink or bearing an elephant, her favorite animal. As a mother, I worried about her frustration, vision challenges, and the mere practicalities of covering one eye, but, even with those concerns, I believed we would go back to our lives, exactly, and painlessly, as they were.

When she didn’t wake up from her anesthetic, I knew something was wrong. She was supposed to come out of it in only a few hours and then we supposed to be released to go home. After the doctors reported that they wanted to keep her overnight for monitoring, she woke up briefly, delirious and vomiting. The next day, same thing, lethargic and vomiting, so she was put on an IV and we were told to wait. Sometime in the afternoon, I ran with her feverish, limp body through the hospital yelling, “Hilfe,” hysterical and angry at myself for not learning German in time, for not having the words to express my fear or outrage or total loss of control. For days, the doctors tried to figure out what had gone wrong. They were testing her for stomach cancer, lymphoma, and lung cancer. They looked for tumors, but eventually determined, it was just a really bad bug.

I thought, okay, I can do this. But let her just get better so we can go back to our normal lives.

Initially, we were told that her MRI brain scan results were clear, but on the third day, after a more thorough review, the neurologist entered the room, looking grim and stated, “We found an abnormality.” Between the technical German, poor English, and vague medical descriptions, the words stopped having meaning, the sentences ceased to clarify, and the only thing I heard was: “Something is wrong with my daughter.” Moments later we were  rushed before a light-backed MRI film, being told that her brain casing could be compressing her spinal cord and then vague descriptions of what symptoms she might face, treatment options like brain surgery or a brain stent.

But all of this, had the thud of the unreal, because, not my baby, not my life.

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I had spent so much of my youth and adulthood, believing that if I made the right decisions, did the right thing, that I was entitled to a certain existence, a certain level of security, a certain set of outcomes. Most of my decisions have been made to maximize the return on my life, but more, to minimize the chances of pain. To do this, I was caught up in goals and plans, strategizing what was I going to do next, or get or see, or how to fulfill my own dreams. Though I have always been a risk-taker, I am also a planner and most of my decisions turn towards the least amount of resistance, the least amount of pain.

Of course it was me, me, me.  Isn’t it always, until it’s not? 

It seems so naïve now, even to write this, but having my daughter diagnosed with a rare brain condition (Chiari malformation), that may or may not present symptoms, and may or may not be affecting her vision, and may or may not require her to have brain surgery in the next months or years, left me questioning everything. When something goes wrong for me, I am often left to go back in time, try to figure out when I made the error, when did I make the wrong decision? How could this have happened? What did I do? Because, “something wrong with my daughter,” was just another way of saying, “something is wrong with me.” I had so many questions, and there was shock, and then searching. The one question that hit me hardest was, “Am I that person now? That person who has a sick child? Am I that person, with that life?”

And, there I was, like a character in a movie or the protagonist in a Sunday morning feature, living in a pediatric neuro unit, surrounded by illness and fear, and the unknown. I was living out those moments I had pitied in others, I was that person I used to feel sorry for, that I never thought I would be, that truly, I never thought I could be.

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I remember stepping out of the U-bahn that night, feeling like the world turned, a new angle, a shifted light, and everything looked more vivid. I made my way from the train station, navigating back to our apartment, along our street in the center of this foreign capital, this foreign country. For the first time, I did not feel like an outsider. I was really seeing, really feeling everyone around me. Suddenly we all seemed more vulnerable. The children passed by me in strollers or raced by on scooters and I wondered, did any of them have an invisible health condition, were their mothers stricken with a degenerative disease? The elderly, seemed so frail, and I could sense for the first time, how long their days must feel. There was such humanity in suffering, empathy in suffering, and, reality in suffering. There was real life in suffering.

First I thought, why me? Then, why not me? And then… of course, me.

For so long, I lived outside of these vulnerabilities and fears. I had spent so much of my life running from them, trying to make decisions that would protect me from this kind of pain, but of course it was always there. I used to see parents of children with disabled, diseased, or dying children and think, “Poor them, I could never handle that,” but this thinking, was a kind of distraction, a distancing, as though, if I couldn’t handle it, if it was so far from my realm of understanding, it wouldn’t happen to me.

During that week in the neuro unit, I sat with the other parents, watching them push through the waiting, and the discomforts, and the anguish of watching a child in pain. I watched them fight and care for their children with nothing less than Herculean strength. I was there with them, in the trenches, no longer pitying those who had been dealt a less fortunate hand, but admiring them, seeing them for the myriad ways they drew strength, stepping up to their daily challenges and their lives. Seeing that, they could absolutely handle it, and of course, they do.

And we’re all tired, and we’re drinking 18 cups of coffee a day and trying to figure out what we can possibly eat at the cafeteria and wondering if it’s weird to get pizza delivery to a hospital, and are we even able to eat anyway. But we get by, surviving those seconds, and minutes, and hours that make up the days.

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The things we think we cannot handle are there to teach us, that we can.

For the first time, I didn’t need perfection, I wasn’t above it all. I was in it. There was something in this new reality that made me feel so utterly blessed, so connected and human.  I no longer had to fight for a perfect life. And, when you’re in it, you see, it is not a life of pity, but a life of love and strength. I found, that I was able to handle hardship, and I would do it, however it came. I thought, “I can do this, I will do this.” And more, “I have the strength and compassion and courage to do this.” Somehow, even in those dark nights, battling my worst fears, I never felt more capable. I never felt stronger.

It won’t be the last time, I get sucker punched with fear or loss, or feel the grip of my own vulnerabilities and of those around me. And even when we think we cannot take anymore, when we need to break past the hospital walls, take a deep breath, sit beneath the trees and just stop to rest. In these private moments away, we may cry, and mourn, the perfect lives we had imagined, or long for those painless lives we will always wish for our children. We will take notice of a cherry blossom, or a patch of clouds, the smell of grass, and feel the earth and the sun. We will know we are connected and whole, and we will go back inside, and love with everything we have.

Cliffhanger

Last month my friend Jess announced, “I’m going to a festival in Barcelona and I’ll be doing MDMA for five days straight.” I pictured her covered in henna tattoos, lit on Molly, dancing on a moon-kissed beach. The romancing of her life and drug use was jarring—in part, because I’m sober and also because, it’s just not my life anymore. I’m a mother, I go to work, I do my dishes, I drink tea, and go to bed early. After 18 months of sobriety and nearly two years of diapers and schedules and routines, rocking my daughter to sleep nearly every single one of those nights, this scene, her destination and its impact, felt so otherworldly.

When the words settled a bit, I thought, “Oh yes, I remember.”

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Throwback, me dancing, summer 2011.

I remembered doing MDMA on the beach, the feeling that nothing else mattered, but the flash, the sensations of a moment. There were no mornings or tomorrows, just those screenshots of fleeting faces and images, sound bites of laughter, a rush that could never be sustained. I had done it, all of it, and even though, it was behind me, I could still feel it, taste it, touch it, and hold it. And because Jess knows me, she knows that there was no need to give me the censored version. She told me about rooftop sex parties, blackout Tinder dates, and the other adventures of a single twenty-something, living in Berlin.

Jess is a full decade younger than me (9 years and 11 months, to be exact). We met in Berlin a few years ago after she moved to Germany from a small town in Iowa. Despite the age gap and life changes, we’ve always sustained wide overlay in our interests and tastes—writing, film, books, television, and travel. Most notably, we share that painful, dull ache, the spell of wanderlust and searching that drove us to leave home in the first place. We’ve had countless and ongoing conversations about becoming expats, leaving our friends and family, and really, how much life would have been easier if we could have just stayed home.

Why couldn’t we be those types who were happy to stay put?

It isn’t lost on me that Jess is living my old life. She is a freelance writer, sailing overseas, bouncing continents, crossing borders, weather patterns, and time zones, hitching and unhitching to the lives of others.  There is such chaos and momentum to her journey, I can almost feel the energy when she comes back into town. It is a manic life, one that feels so vivid in my memory. Some days you are overflowing with so much love, energy and experience,  you are going to burst and others, you worry, you will never find land, you will always be searching, and never have what it takes to just be where you are.

The month after we met she was in a drunken bike accident and I went to visit her in the hospital. I brought her snacks from the Spätkauf,and cheap magazines and old books to keep her occupied. With a severe concussion, the doctors kept her in the hospital for nearly a week. She never told anyone from home or her parents what happened to her and it was the first time I remember worrying about her, but more remembering exactly how that felt to be alone in a foreign country, alone in a foreign hospital.

I had my last drink with Jess sometime in early 2016. We were at a shitty Irish pub in the touristy part of town. She was drinking cheap red wine, I was drinking cheap white. Though I told myself, just one or two glasses that night, we probably had 6 or 7. And, even after I tripped on my platforms in the middle of Friedrichstraße, we thought it was a good idea to find a club. We stumbled around for a few blocks until I realized I was too drunk to keep wandering around aimlessly. Also, somehow it did still occur to me, I had a four month old baby to take care of in the morning. Jess jumped on her bike and swerved away.

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It was a life I had to say goodbye to, and I did.

We flew to Sicily last week, both escaping for different reasons. Jess was looking forward to a kind of sober, detox weekend with me, and I was looking for an adventure, a break in the parenting doldrums. We bought cheap flights to Catania, took a bus to Teormina, on the Eastern Coast of Sicily and rented a budget AirB&B in the center of town, with a hard bed and a windy air conditioner. From our private balcony we still had a wide, striking view of the Mediterranean from the town built into the island cliffs. We had a simple plan– hike, swim, write, read, and eat Sicilian food.

Our friendship sometimes feels like worlds and time colliding—who we are, up against who we were and who we will become, like the seas that smashed against the rocks. There was part of me that worried—would she get bored of me and my 11 PM bedtime? Or worse, would I be tempted by the fantasy of my old life, the freedom and the booze and that feeling like true escape was only a cocktail away. It was the first sober vacation I had taken away from my daughter and my husband, so even though I felt comfortable being around alcohol, I wasn’t sure how I would react to being thrown into proximity of an old me, the semblance of my old life—no responsibilities, no one to wake up to, the romance of travel and nostalgia co-mingling in a dangerous way.

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The first morning we woke early and hiked up to the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca, a 500 stair climb. We did switchbacks on the trail, and in our conversations, alternating between the terrains of our lives. I talked about family life, whether or not we wanted a second child, how to balance career and artistic aspirations with child-rearing. She talked about a recent Tinder date, what country she is going to go to next, and more pressing, her brother’s recent Facebook post that confessed he was suicidal. We were similar in that way, still feeling connected to home, worrying about other people a lot, yet still so far away that we felt helpless. Our conversations gave us some distance, the distraction of the other, and differences between us,  offered perspective on our own lives.

I should be more accurate in painting a picture of Jess. Despite her proclivities for a secret and bawdy nightlife, she maintains a fairly productive day life. She is brilliant and bookish, graduated 4th in her high school class and got a full scholarship to college. She is a novelist, a professional romance author who writes a novel a week for a client-publisher. I’ll repeat that—she writes a novel a week. Her books are top-rated on Amazon and she has a widespread following in her pen name. I want to say, despite her exploits, she is successful, driven and grounded in a way that I never was in my twenties. She can also be shy with a soft, childlike voice that requires you to lean in. Though I know she is bright and worldly, it is easy to dismiss her as passive, because of her stature, her kind eyes, and her uncanny ability to just sit and listen.

“You’re a good listener,” I told her while we were at dinner, sitting on one of the tile squares, next to a church set against the backdrops of the Sicilian cliffs and the Mediterranean skyline, “People might take advantage of that,” I said, worried that maybe I already had.

“They do,” she said with an upspeak, seeming to accept this simple fact about who she is, in the same regretful way she once said to me, “I’ll always be the small cute girl, not the sexy one,” even though she is.  Jess can pull off the string bikinis and chest baring V-neck onesies that would make me feel old, naked, and silly. Later that night, two American men passed by us, glanced down at her, and, assuming we didn’t speak English, one of them said to the other, “Are you looking at what I’m looking at?” It was one of those things you giggle at because it’s uncomfortable, and common, and dealing with the crudeness of men is always a form of female bonding.

In the morning we took the cable car from city center and decided to hike out on one of the jutting rocky peninsulas from the beach. We walked to the edge, climbed a steep path and then crawled over the railing to get to the first inlet. We got to the first peak and looked out, the waves crashing below us, before we decided to keep going up. I managed to move fast, nearly skipping through the first part of the climb, but then I had to stop. It was steep and vertical, requiring some skill, the right foot placement, finding a well-fingered grip. I looked up at the ascent in front of me, then down at the jagged rocks below, the waves crashing, the crevices of rock and patches of water, none safe for landing.

Jess was already over the ridge when I heard her yell, “It’s nice up here.” I paused, wondering if I should keep going or just turn back. The sun was reflecting from the rocks in front of me, the winds whipping my hair, the sound of the waves crashing over the rocks below. I thought about my daughter and some fears took over–maybe, I couldn’t afford this kind of lifestyle, these types of risks. Just in time, I stopped thinking and started moving, keeping my gaze in front of me, pulling myself up, one step, one wedged foot at a time. When I finally launched myself over the highest rocks, I stood tall, looking over the sea from a flat rock.

Both of us had some nervous energy so we sat down and I told Jess a story I recently heard about these two hikers in California who strayed from their trail. They kept going further and further up, thinking they were on the right path, edging around these narrowing cliffs until it got dark, and they finally had to stop. Stuck on a rock and waiting for the sun to come up, the one hiker heard his friend slip and just as he woke to catch him, he was gone, without a sound. All night he told himself that his friend must have survived, he was just waiting for him below and he continued to call to him, talk to him through the night. The next morning he hiked down and found his friend’s body at the bottom of the trail.

It was a harrowing story, but what I remembered most was that after he reported the accident, the cops wouldn’t drive him back to San Francisco and he had to hitchhike home. The woman who picked him up said something like, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” I don’t know if that last part is true, but that’s what I remembered, and that’s the story I told Jess.

She was wide-eyed and for the first time since I have known her, she looked terrified, “I want to get down now, I’m scared.” I was scared too. I knew we went up too far, and we had already climbed over barricades to get where we were and there wasn’t a clear way down, and that going down would be a lot harder than going up.

I also knew I fucked up telling her that story and decided I owed it to her to go first.

“Don’t worry,” I told her, even though, my legs were quivering.

I gripped a rock with my right hand and turned around to begin my descent, carefully each place to hook my fingers into the rocks, to jab my toes into the hallows and crevices, calculating the loose stones and debris. I wrapped around the bend and could no longer see Jess but kept focused on my feet, my grip, the space closing between me and the ocean. I tried not to think, just move each hand, each foot, one at a time, slowly moving closer until I hit the granite below.  Still 20 feet above the sea, I caught my breath, the heat burning my cheeks, and shoulders.  It seemed so long ago that I was up at the top looking down, already just a memory, as I looked up to see Jess, on the same bend, slowly, steadily, making her way back.

Before we left the beach that day we decided to cliff-jump from the same rocks. It seemed intentional, less reckless somehow, to go down, rather than up. From the ridge I could see the bottom of the ocean through the green water below, exactly where the rocks formed beneath the surface, the negative spot, clear to the bottom where I would need to land. I kicked off my shoes and stepped towards the edge, waves of adrenaline coursed my stomach, my limbs, and reached my fingertips. I could see the peaks of the mountains we climbed the day before, the cross on the ledge, the layers of town that folded into the distance, the crowds on the beach splayed before me. And in those seconds my feet between rock, air, and water, I was alive.

Cliffjump
Photo credit to Jess.

I had to swim around the island to crawl back up to the rocks where Jess was waiting. She was eager but hesitant. Her shoes were off and she was standing at the ledge, “I want to jump but…” she stepped back, “I just need a minute.”

“Just go, you’ll be fine,” I told her, “It’s clear, I promise.” She stepped to the ledge and back again, “Just go,” I urged her again, “You will be glad you did it.” I tried to think about what I would want to hear, what I would want someone to tell me, to give me strength and comfort about what lies ahead.

Jess reminded me of where I had been, but also all of the chaos, mishaps, fails, pains and recoveries that got me where I was. There is an insecurity in youth, and it lies in the not knowing, the standing on the cliff, before you jump, before decisions begin to stack up behind you. There was nothing I could say, nothing to save her from life or protect her from mistakes, or regrets, or the pain that would inevitably come. It was all there in front of her, and I knew it would be beautiful and wonderful however it happened.

“Jump, I tell her. It’s more dangerous up here than it is down there. Just go,”  I said. It was the only thing I could tell her, that I knew to be true. It’s always harder before the decision, before the fall, before you know what happens next. She looked out over the water and up at the cliffs, and without saying a word, she jumped.

Life is always an easy metaphor for life.

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A shot of Catania from the windows.

On the flight home our seats were a few rows apart. We were still texting when the plane took off and she was jittery about a boy she likes.

“You’re a strong girl,” I texted, “You can handle both love or heart break.”

I have to stop myself, from sharing too much, from telling her too many stories, trying to impart my many ideas about life and my experience. And there’s always a chance that I’ll tell the wrong story, or say the wrong thing. I want to tell her to be reckless and free as long as she can, but never to ignore her suffering. I want to tell her to please, please, please love her body exactly how it is. And, don’t waste time with waste of time guys.  I want to tell her to forgive her parents and try to love them exactly as they are. I want to tell her to enjoy the excited and scary feeling of not knowing how a romance will turn out because someday, you’ll miss that mystery. Mostly, I want to tell her not to worry about what will happen next, that everything will be okay, that none of this matters, but all of it matters.

I want to be reassuring somehow and give her words she could hold on to, but I know I can’t save her, and I shouldn’t. I know that really, there is nothing for me to say. There are no words to explain youth.

This beautiful and unknown, this life, it is hers to unfold.

Can You Love Her Too?

A few months ago, a string of events and circumstances left me broken, in one of the lowest points I can remember. When telling stories about ourselves, our minds will locate us in time and space. As we search for meaning, we identify that day when everything turned around, or the moment it all began to fall apart. For me, that was the day of the Women’s March, the same day that my grandmother died, January 21, 2017. Though she was 90-years-old and her death was expected and natural, the emotions, the sense of loss, the power of death swept over me. It was profound and emotional and I don’t think it’s arbitrary that this was the exact day I remember things started slipping.

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Living abroad and losing a family member throws everything into question. You are back in bed with your own guilt and shame about leaving, reawakening family secrets that drove you away in the first place, as well as the reality, that there will be more losses, and especially that loss of time, that grinds on, as true, as the lines that crease our skin. Death has that power to invoke our own mortality while at the same time, spurring questions about how our lives have been lived, how they will continue to be lived, until they are not.

All of these questions about life and choices and the heaviness surrounding my grandmother’s death compelled to go home for the funeral, on a last minute international flight, at the very least, so that I didn’t have to live in more regret, or the question of whether I had made a mistake, made a wrong turn, or missed something important.

In a cab headed to Tegel Airport I felt something clench my chest, like a hand had reached in and squeezed. I thought it was anxiety about leaving my daughter for the first time, on another continent, while I flew back to the U.S. An hour later I started to feel uneasy and overwhelmed. I couldn’t sort through my physical feelings from the emotional ones and somewhere over the Atlantic, I fell into a fever, cold sweats, and nausea. By the time I landed at O’Hare I could barely stand straight. I drove holding a bag next to my face the whole way from Chicago in case I threw up in my Dad’s pick-up. I spent the next three days unable to get out of bed, missed the funeral, and was diagnosed with pneumonia and bronchitis.

Also, it was my birthday.

In the weeks to come, my daughter would need an MRI to rule out a brain tumor after she had some troubling exams on her eyes. While getting said MRI she would catch a super virus in the hospital leaving her hooked up to an IV and unable to eat, drink, or sit up on her own for six days.  I had mustered some adrenaline to get through the hospital stay, yet, my own health plummeted again, and I came out of the hospital with two more rounds of stomach flu, two sinus infections, and had been on three more rounds of antibiotics since I returned from the U.S.

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A photo I took as winter shifted to spring, from the hospital window, the plastic bird decal, a reminder we were on the inside.

This series of events were emotionally, spiritually, and physically draining in that way where you don’t know how to keep turning over the days. I kept thinking back, “When did this all start? Why is this happening?” and more pressing, “When is it going to end?” I was having trouble getting back into work, integrating my own health problems with caring for my daughter, trying to handle my job, working on my own recovery and also just trying to stay mentally stable enough to face each day. I didn’t want traditional counseling or psychotherapy, but I knew I needed support and someone to talk to about what was going on with me.

I began working with a wellness coach, referred to me by a mutual friend. We had bi-weekly sessions and explored my varied issues—family life, career, addiction recovery, emotional stability, depression, parenting, health and fitness, and even my artistic endeavors. I loved our sessions and found them such a comfort during some dark days where I felt completely hopeless. Because of my physical health problems, I had sunk into a depression, some days very uncertain about how things were ever going to get better. One day I hit a real wall. I was crying in the bathroom at work. On the way to yet another doctor’s appointment, I was sobbing so hard that a woman handed me a pack of Kleenex before she stepped out of the train.

Later that day while going through my list of “things wrong with me and my life,” I told my wellness coach, “And on top of everything… I just got the worst haircut.”

It was true, by no fault of my beloved stylist, but I wasn’t ready for the short bangs or the angled lob that was about four inches shorter than I imagined. It seems vain and superficial, but there is nothing like a bad haircut that can really throw you into self-doubt, wondering, who are you really?

A short hair history: When I was six years old I got a really bad boy haircut in kindergarten to please my mother who was sick of my perennial hair veil. I was already socially anxious, but for years, I truly believed that it was this single bad haircut that left me feeling like I didn’t belong, like there was something wrong with me. But, hair had always represented something bigger to me. It was about making a decision about who we are to the world, it was about crafting and creating a version to be loved. And for me, there was so much pressure on being a certain way and I lived in fear that with one wrong move, one erroneous scissor slip, I wouldn’t be loveable at all.

So, yeah, it was just a bad haircut, but it felt like the death knell on the last shred of mental health I was holding on to.

When doing any kind of self-improvement, it’s easy to focus on our best self. Who will we become if we get to tweak this or that? I had always believed that there was a best version of myself and spent most of my twenties and early thirties trying to figure out how to get to her, this imagined version of myself, this perfected version, like a sculpture, the ever-unfinished masterpiece.

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I knew exactly who she was. I could see her so clearly that she never seemed too out of reach. She always looks impeccable with rowdy, full hair. Somehow her legs always appear slightly longer in photos. She has my body type, but with a few inches shaved off here and there. She wears glitter for no reason and dances shamelessly in public (even when sober). She is known for her hilarity and wit, and can even banter in German. She is a good cook (even likes it) and a devoted wife and mom, who never tires. She can wear a pressed, white shirt without staining it before noon. She performs her many roles with vigor, while always reflecting a perfect inner calm, a nearly meditative state. She is whimsical, independent and free-spirited, never afraid of taking a risk. She is smart with money, but also a generous gift-giver who never misses the mark. She is comfortably extroverted while also quietly intellectual. She is brave and never worries about the consequences. And, her consequences are never regrets, but well-processed learning lessons.

So, that’s her, the, unrealistically developed and unattainable me. And there were so many ways of working on her. I thought about how much time I had spent wanting to love this person- this best version of myself, how many hours of the day I had spent strategizing, trying to figure out what I would still need to do to become her. There were degrees and resume boosters, new career paths, and experiences, travel and other forms of cachet. There were countless beauty products and treatments, investments in heels and platforms, eyelash and hair extensions. There were artistic performances, publications, and expressions, there were workouts and wellness routines, and parenting books, and cooking classes, and even if I got close, she was always fleeting.

Because, this version of myself was never real. In fact, I never realized that I even had this fantasy of myself until my wellness coach wrote to me that day after my bad haircut breakdown: “I wonder now, just what you think of yourself when you are in the depth of depression? Are you able to sit with yourself in these low places and just BE with her. The non-high energy, non-vibrant, sick Kate. Can you love her too?”

“Her? Who is her?” I thought, as though she was writing about someone I had never met.

Breathless for a moment, something clicked. Her.

I burst into tears on the train (again, always a good place to cry), realizing how I had compartmentalized these versions of myself, that I even withheld self-love, making it conditional upon performance, giving myself some unattainable standard, my constant discourse being, “Of course I can love myself, when I am perfect, when I finish this project, when everything about me looks right, and my life works out exactly the way it should, and I have this accomplishment or that fix…” For the first time, I realized that I had never loved myself as I was.

I was always waiting for someone better to show up.

And for the first time I asked myself, “Can you love her too?” And then I thought about the real her.

Can you love her… who was so terrified in the hospital that she closed her eyes instead of watching the doctors inserting an IV while her daughter screamed? Can you love her on those days, when completely isolated, desperately alone in a foreign country? Can you love, her, when she is sick and depressed, and even, when she wonders, if she will ever be okay. Can you love her when she is full of loss and regret and fear?

Can you love her?

It’s easy to love the highest versions of ourselves… but can we love the lowest ones too?  I had ignored this weaker, suffering version of myself, because I did not want to see her, I didn’t want it to be possible, that she was just as real, just as alive. Somehow I hadn’t seen, that these imperfections, had always made me stronger, they made me who I was. They taught me what I was capable of, because you can’t hide your weakness, without hiding your strength too. Because of course there would be missteps, and falling short, and always days, I would be a lesser version. Of course I was her.

How could I have missed this blatant fact, that I was human?

Loving only one version of ourselves is denying who we are. It is depriving us of the capacity to love where we have been, where we are going. Denying our darkest nights is the same as forgetting our brightest days.

Now I know, it is not my best self that needs love, it is the other one.

The one who suffers? Love her.
Ashamed, guilty, full of regret? Love her.
Sick, worn down, weary? Love her.
Scared? Love her.
Gained ten pounds? Love her.
Depressed or anxious? Love her.
Exhausted? Love her.
Selfish, wanting, hopeless? Love her too.
Impatient, cruel or unkind? Forgive her, love her, love her, love her.  Even more…

Strip Tease

“You’d be at home in San Francisco—there are little earthquakes every day,” someone once said to me. The summer after I called off my wedding and traveled around the world, I was looking to find a place to stay put. San Francisco was a befitting destination, to somehow settle an unsettled girl. Months before I arrived, I dreamed and plotted my life in California.

Like most of my dreams and fantasies, the imagery in my mind was wild and vivid:  glowing sunsets over the Pacific, communing with the redwoods, sun showered days on the beach. I would eat seafood on the Pier, bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, and drive into the sunset wearing Jackie O glasses in a convertible I had yet to own. I saw the movies and I had already been watching my future life unfold. I was always able to picture myself in different places, doing fantastic things, able to live the entire experience in my mind, almost so fully, it felt like it happened.

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Reality was always something else.

I needed an apartment fast and used Craigslist to land a cheap street-level room in the Mission with metal bars on the windows. The recent random shootings in the hood were somehow canceled out by our proximity to Delores Park and the authentic Mexican food we could buy at the market across the street.

The main tenant (my landlord) collected Social Security Disability and had moved into the spare closet to save rent money. He was in a band and did some sort of job with a van during the day that allowed him to pursue his other passion, which was hoarding. He was always bringing home anything he found abandoned on the street: old comics, bad art, or broken furniture. One time he picked up a bunch of old medical devices from a local hospital. I came home and all five of my roommates were rolling around in wheelchairs or swinging on crutches.

It was supposed to be funny, but it felt like a Stanley Kubrick film.

clockwork

All of the decorations I purchased for the wedding reception were still stuffed in the trunk of my car. There were silk flowers, bright pink paper lanterns, and enough string lights to fill an entire banquet hall. It was the first time I had my own place to live in over a year, and it had been even longer since I had my own room. I felt like a child tying to replicate my earliest fantasies of what a bedroom should be. I was so grateful for the privacy, the autonomy of space.

I painted the walls hot pink and strung all of the paper lanterns from the ceiling. I draped the lights between the lanterns and around the room and made a fire hazard out of every inch. I bought vintage furniture from the local flea market, built my own vanity and wired big theatrical circle lights and hung a blue feather boa on a coat hook next to my vanity.  My room looked like The Moulin Rouge, and it wasn’t an accident.

My next big fantasy was to become a burlesque dancer.  

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I saw a lot of burlesque in New York, drawn to the neo-burlesque movement, the revival of this spectacle and the indulgence of sensuality and glamour. I loved all of the acts from the garish, bawdy and comedic to the more romantic, vintage cabaret. Even as a child, I loved the fetishism of femininity.  I always thought, “I’m so glad I’m a girl, it must be so boring to be a boy,” because clothes and make-up. Dolly Parton has always been one of my greatest role models. So, after my breast implant surgery, it wasn’t like ‘”Oh I can do this now,” but I definitely felt liberated about what my body was, what I could do with it. And maybe fixing this one part gave me the confidence I needed to be seen.

I started taking burlesque classes at studio off a shady street downtown San Francisco. On the first day, we learned how to sexy walk, the art of undressing, the performance of flirting. We picked characters and burlesque names and practiced using different props and costume pieces. There were tricks like how to remove a layer, turn, look over the shoulder with a well-timed wink or how to bend over gracefully to remove a stocking.  A few weeks in, we stuck on pasties and learned how to twirl nipple tassels. You can go right, you can go left, you can go center or outerswing, you can alternate. There were so many options.

It was a good day.

tassels

The classroom had a full closet of costumes and accessories to play with:  boas, heels, bras, corsets, jackets, gloves, and scarves to cover and toss. Every Wednesday, we would all layer up and one by one remove our clothing until we were down to those gold, silver, sequinned, star-shaped, or circle pasties. For weeks, we practiced for our show which was slated for the Elbo Room on Valencia. We each had a single act and then a group performance.

It was around Christmas time so we were doing a Grinch-themed act. I don’t remember all the moves, but I do remember there was a sexy Grinch whipping a bunch of burlesque-clad Who’s-From Whoville into submission to the theme- song, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.”

You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch.
You’re a nasty, wasty skunk.
Your heart is full of unwashed socks
Your soul is full of gunk Mr. Grinch.

Whip. Whip. Whip. Spank. Spank. Spank.

I choreographed my solo performance to David Bowie’s Dancing With Myself, donning a trench coat, carrying an umbrella and enter from a rainy street and into a woman’s boudoir. I shake off then play with the variety of props in the pockets of the trench coat- headphones, handcuffs, gloves, hats, and scarves. The trench coat opens to the right, then the left, I spin around and it falls to the ground. I am down to a corset, then tassels. It was wild and high energy and fun and I practiced it over and over in my Moulin Rouge bedroom until I was out of breath.

A few days before the performance I thought about the scene and our breakout routine—what it would really be like. The Mission bar that smelled like old beer and what if the lights were bad or the audience was just a bunch of gross dudes. Maybe I got scared, or if I was still a bit awkward about doing the nipple tassels in a room full of strangers. Whatever happened or how it turned out, I knew that the reality would never be as good as the fantasy I had created in my own mind. I had successfully done the performance, from my own room, with my boas and hats, beneath the the festooned, repurposed wedding lights.

In my room, where the lights irradiated the room, the costumes more full, and complicated, and dazzling, and the audience swooned. I heard the roar of laughter and cheering. It was 1930’s vaudeville, I was enveloped by lights and starlet adoration, the headlining act, captivating with grace and ease, shedding each layer, awakening the audience to frenzy with my feverish shimmies and shakes. After rounds of erotic tease, my flawless grand finale strip down met an uproarious round of final applause that went on, and on, and, into the night…

In the end, I stayed home, I had already completed the perfect burlesque show, inside my own head.

SF room

 

Motherhood Can’t Fix You

Mothers are archetypes in lore and mythology for good reason. It’s not just the power to give birth that sets them on an imagined pedestal; it’s the array of supporting qualities—edgeless compassion, unwavering kindness, the glorified selflessness. The role of mother was both captivating and terrifying, because it simply wasn’t me. What metamorphosis would I have to endure to incarnate as this particular kind of woman?

Even when I didn’t want children, it was hard not to perceive motherhood as the pinnacle of feminine existence. Becoming a mother seemed like a necessary rite of passage, a way to come into the world, as evolved, directed, at the very least prepared. If I was a mother, I would carry more practical items in my purse than just a pair of handcuffs or a rotten piece of fruit. Mothers carried tissues and crackers and Band-Aids and other things that were actually intended to nurture other people. Such motivations had always eluded me.

Mothers had all of these qualities, and they were stable and reliable in a way that I wasn’t. Something must have made them this way, I believed.

It must be in the baby.

You make a baby and get to be someone else. All it takes is nine months, and you transform, as though these hormones, this baby and the womb, were a kind of cocoon  to envelop the woman who would evolve,  change, and become—mother.  So, when I decided to get pregnant, I wasn’t just giving birth to a baby– I was giving birth to a new me.

Of course, I wanted the baby and understood the sacrifices, but I wholeheartedly believed in the prospect of this transformation. I held a serious conviction, that once I became a mother, I would be different. I would be selfless, and loving and kind. I wouldn’t have the urge to drink whiskey until the sun came up or stay out all night with strangers or go to Berghain on a Sunday afternoon. I would get over my depression. I would stop having panic attacks. I wouldn’t need to travel or run. I could stay in one place. I could stop trying to figure out what was wrong with me.

I could be happy. I would be fixed. I would be good.

Pregnancy and its swelling potential filled me with a deep sense of gratitude and purpose. The glow was real. I loved the way people looked at me–men, women, and children alike seemed to smile, awe-filled, seeing me the way I had always wanted to be seen, How selfless I was to be carrying this child, what a sacrifice I had made of my life and my figure. It was almost too easy, as my pregnant body already embodied everything I had wanted to become, everything I believed that I was missing.  They saw the goodness in me that I had never been able to see before.

I simply assumed that, once having and holding this baby I already loved so much—I would be better, I would be different. In one of the most important ways, I would be released from my obsession with alcohol. I would be freed from binge drinking, black outs, and other signs that pointed to alcoholism since I was 16. After all, I could never be a drunk mom. Drunk moms were reckless, selfish, and, really, they weren’t even real moms. There was something inherently wrong with them, because how could you do that? Months, weeks, even days before my daughter was born, I remember thinking, “I’m so glad I’ve changed and that I don’t need to drink anymore.”

It was such a comfort to no longer be haunted by the specter of alcoholism.

The actual birth and cold swim shock of new motherhood was everything powerful and amazing, and, also expected, a general existential fuck. I am not going to detail the already well-documented experiences of sleep deprivation, physical pain, or the emotional exhaustion that comes with new motherhood. I’m not even complaining: I always knew it was going to wreck me in certain ways, even if I couldn’t have predicted exactly the myriad ways that it did. I knew that all of this would be part of it. However, my emotional landscape was also clouded by post-partum depression and I was diagnosed with PTSD after a traumatic birth. I didn’t even know that was a thing until my doctor referred me to an osteopath who specialized in trauma recovery for new mothers.

My drinking after her birth started slowly. A glass or two of wine some nights in the first weeks, then gradually more, but my compulsion to drink was increasing by day. I knew exactly what alcohol did for me- it was my escape, from my body, my feelings, from my own mind, even from time, that feeling of being stuck, those long days and nights as a new mother that never seem to end. I started to think about drinking at earlier hours. Home alone with a baby, the reality crossed my mind that no one would notice or care if I had a few. There was one night I told myself I wasn’t going to drink, but I couldn’t stop myself from pushing the stroller into the neighborhood bodega for a bottle of wine. Other nights, I tried to cap it at one glass, but couldn’t stop before finishing the bottle. Even if I had bought, two or three, it was never enough.

Worse than my compulsion to drink, was the feeling that I really needed it at the end of the day. I yearned for my daughter to fall asleep so I could have my time and felt resentful if she woke up again after the bottle was uncorked. I kept a cold distance from her on those nights—even the sounds of her cries were different to me when I was already a few glasses in. They didn’t stir me or move me the same way they did when I was sober; they were simply interruptions, like distant sirens, grating, disconnected, like the sound of someone else’s ambulance.

Then something happened that brought me to my knees.

One night when my daughter was nearly four months old and my husband was working late, I started drinking boxed wine, a leftover from our Christmas party. A few glasses here, a few refills, then a few more, even a few phone calls later, and I blacked out. I don’t remember finishing the wine or going to bed or what happened in those hours, but I know my daughter would have been waking up.  The next morning I found my daughter asleep in bed with me. I couldn’t remember bringing her there. I didn’t remember caring for her that night, feeding her, or how I must have stumbled into bed with her by my side. The images of what could have happened filled me with terror.

The next morning, I held my daughter, feeling so ashamed, so scared of what could have happened, what would happen to us if I didn’t do something. And then, I heard a voice so clear, so audible. For the first time in my life, after 20 years of willing it not to be true, I heard the words, “You’re an alcoholic. Get help.”

I had never considered those words: Alcoholic or Help. I had been out of control in so many ways, but for the first time, I knew I was not okay. No amount of managing my drinks, or only drinking on weekends, or even cutting myself off  for a while was going to be enough. If I had any control over my drinking, there is no way I would have let myself blackout while taking care of a newborn baby. I knew that motherhood, day after day, year after year, would have only amplified my addiction. It was exactly the antidote I craved to answer the tedium and stress of new parenthood. The increased anxiety and depression were mounting everyday. My restless mind had become unbearable. I saw exactly where I was headed and I knew I needed help.

After nearly 18 months of sobriety, I finally understand that motherhood couldn’t fix me. Nothing could have. For so long I had been looking for that thing that would make me feel better, that thing that would make me feel like I was enough. For me it had always been about creating potential, with degrees and jobs and boyfriends and new cities, and travel destinations, and drugs, and booze, and like that children’s book, the Hungry Caterpillar, I had filled myself with so many things, consumed so much, sought out so many ways to be.

And, none of it worked.

catapillar

I love this metaphor though, the caterpillar that continues to eat and eat, consumes so much, and then must stop, and be still. It must simply be. I am there now, cocooned, warm and safe, learning to be present. And sometimes, in the stillness, I am cramped by old memories, or regrets, pains that I do not want to remember. I am in my cocoon, with all of it, all of me, all of who I was and who I will become. There is still so much potential, so much beauty to be seen. Naturally, there is evolution, and change in this phase, this state of motherhood, but not the way I imagined. Motherhood forced me to see my weaknesses, my deepest fears and pains, the reality of me.

It taught me to love myself, so that I am truly able to love.

Bad Influence

Ted wore square hipster glasses and slicked back his thinning hair. We met when I was 23 and he was 30, which seemed really, really old, like Dad old, which is probably why I trusted him more than I should have. The night we met he drunk drove me home from a dive bar, pulled over in front of my apartment and said, “You know I’m just trying to score right?” When he smiled, I saw through the gap between his front teeth. He laughed and shrugged, “What? I’m just being honest.”

He was honest and I liked it. Ted never tried to cover up who he was—he was base and dirty and swore, and drank too much and broke the law. I learned this over the years, but during those few seconds before I gave him my number and got out of his car, I could already see everything. I knew exactly who he was—and I didn’t care. I wanted to be friends.

Continue reading “Bad Influence”

A Girl Gone: Chapter II

What Happened? Since You Asked…

I started this blog when I was living out of my car. It was 2010 and I had just called off my wedding and left to travel across the U.S. and around the world with no itinerary or plans to return. I remember those early days with such awe and clarity. It was deep into August and the air was thick with humidity. I always drove with the windows down, the wind making my hair wild. I had traded in all of my wedding jewelry for a handful of gaudy rings full of rhinestones, chunky necklaces, and fake flowers to tuck behind my ears. I was turning 30 in a few months, but I felt younger than I had in over a decade.

I worked online, had no apartment to take care of, no place to be, no relationship to manage. I was a girl gone and it was the first time in my life I remember feeling truly free. During the first months, I lived in a cabin in the Smokey Mountains, traveled through New Orleans with a federal marshal, drove across Costa Rica in an old Jeep, and lived with a house of farmers in Florida. I went to Australia, Bali, then Thailand, and Vietnam between October 2010 and March 2011.

Though I was uncertain of my destinations, I was certain of my choice—to live in pure detachment. I dismissed old notions of time, and thrived on the promise of unending experiences, the idea that I could keep going, move faster and lose myself in each moment. Even in darker periods of fear, loneliness or solitude, spare nights in cheap hotel rooms off the interstate or on foreign lands—I always held onto this idea, the lustful vision of freedom.

But, something wasn’t right.

It wasn’t long before I felt the cracks in my plan. In the first months abroad, I had a difficult time moving from place to place, and even more, person to person. I felt my experiences slipping through my fingers like sand, or time, never really amounting into something I could feel or hold onto. I wanted every moment to mean something, but they didn’t add up that way. I remember cold winter nights in Northern Vietnam, sick in a hotel room alone, when I would have given anything to be held by someone I loved. Still, I never wanted to give up this plan or the journey, and so, I pressed on.

For a little over a month, I stayed in Turkey with other women ex-pats. I felt grounded again, like I gained footing by simply staying put and having these connections that lasted longer than a few nights. All of this time, I did what I had set out to do—I traveled and I wrote. I wrote about the people I had met and how those encounters had changed and shaped me along the way. I still believed if I moved fast enough, and collected enough of these experiences and stories, I would change, and be different, and so, I kept writing, and, I kept moving.

Maybe if I just moved faster…

I had been deep in the caves of Eastern Turkey, bouncing around Greek islands, stuck in an airport in Moscow, drove across Ireland, went camping in Scotland & Northern England and by the time I got to London, one aspect of my life had grown increasingly heavy. I was drinking more and the alcohol was making me distracted, anxious, even depressed. I started to have panic attacks. I needed booze, sometimes to sleep, sometimes to blackout, at least a few times a week. While traveling it was never hard to convince people to drink with me, especially in the UK and Europe. It was also easy to dismiss as part of my lifestyle: “I’m traveling–and, so what?”

Around this time, I met some hitchhikers in Malaga and followed them by ferry to Morocco. When they were gone, I found myself alone in Marrakesh, alone and desperate for a next move. I bought a cheap flight and got a hotel room in Barcelona on a whim and drank a few bottles of wine while I tried to figure out next steps. A woman I had met in Bangkok kindly let me stay in her apartment for the next weeks, even though I was in no state to care for someone else’s things. While she was in Paris for the weekend, I threw a party with some of the locals, trashing her place and feeling so guilty that I left before I even cleaned up the mess.

I never wrote about my alcohol or drug abuse, because I was too scared to appear weak, or vulnerable or like I had a problem. If I was honest, it had been going on long before I started traveling, long before I was even engaged, long before I ever left home for the first time. I had struggled with alcohol since I was 15, but was always looking for that way out, the next move that would fix me. I was prone to impetuous decisions, crying with strangers, and some legitimately dangerous encounters, like when I got breast implants in Bangkok, blacked out drinking snake whiskey on a train with members of the Vietnamese mafia, or casually hanging out with that American dude who was wanted for kidnapping.

I started to fear that maybe I had been wrong about myself, wrong about my desires to live off the grid, wrong about my beliefs that I didn’t need attachments—to people or place. Desperate to find some peace and a home in the world, I decided to return to the U.S. and get some stability in San Francisco. During this time, I wrote about trying to adjust when I came home: moving in with a bartender, getting into multiple car accidents, a foray into burlesque dancing, and another stab at sobriety after a particularly ouch-y bottom.

Getting sober was painful. It always had been. I got sober once when I was 22 and relapsed after a year. Now I was 31 and trying it again, but getting sober always felt like waiting for a train that never showed up. I had anxiety and still took shots of Nyquil to get to sleep. Coming back to the U.S. and trying to stay in one place, I was completely restless. The minutes, hours, and days grew longer and it wasn’t long before I hit my sober-wall. I remember the conversations in my head always went the same, “If being sober hurts this much, then I would rather be drunk.” Within six months I relapsed, which I also wrote about here. At the time, I wouldn’t have called it a relapse: I simply wanted to drink again and that was what I decided to do. It isn’t an accident that I have yet to use the word “alcoholic” because even though all of this, I never believed I was one.

The summer of 2012, I went back to living in my car, spent time driving along the Pacific Coast- up to Portland, along the California coast, Utah, and Arizona. I saw a psychic in Sedona who told me, “Your spirit animal is clear—it’s a horse, but a dark horse, like you have too much freedom.” She said, “I have never seen anything like this before—so much freedom, but so much darkness.” I knew what she meant, but I didn’t know how to fix it. She also said that I would have a decision to make about my life, and that I would know what to do when it arose.

Two weeks later I was offered an apartment in Berlin. I put my car and everything I owned in storage and left, again with no plans. Perhaps it was fate or just the willing of the mind, but a few weeks after landing, I met the man I would marry. Less than two months later, I flew back to the U.S. and sold everything, tied up some loose ends, and prepared to start a new life in Berlin. After years of not living anywhere, I was going to give “staying put” a chance, even though, I had no idea what this meant.

About the blog: I didn’t know what to do with Wayward Betty, whose primary direction and motivation hinged on freedom, and being single and detached, and on the road, always. Not only was I not her anymore, I didn’t want to be her, and there was some shame in that. The day I called off my wedding and took off, I had prided myself on being forever detached, alone, self-sufficient, without people or place. Even though I was well into my thirties, I was somehow ashamed of my need to be loved and my desire to stay put, as though, I couldn’t live up to the heroine I had created in my own mind.

There was also part of me, that wrongly believed, without this backdrop of a foreign and exotic lifestyle, my experiences and ideas weren’t interesting enough to write about. It was my belief that WWB had lost, and so I quit writing the blog and penned The End. During a particularly fractured period of my life, I decided that I hated all of my writing and took WWB offline.

And like that, Wayward Betty disappeared.

Nearly five years later, I am still in Berlin. I got married, had a baby, conceded to my alcoholism and got sober. There were all the therapies (Grinberg Method, acupuncturists, life coaches, spiritual advisers, shrinks), as well as meditation and mindfulness training and 12-stepping, but I would say I have learned the most rewarding and difficult lesson of my life: how to stay put. For me, staying put didn’t just mean, living traditionally or staying for my husband or my child, it meant staying put for me. It meant learning not to run from myself.

After a few years, I feel like I finally have some perspective on what happened while I was “homeless” and traveling. For the last months, I have been wanting to develop a new platform to explore my new life and to share some of my experiences. I was going to start a new blog, as though a new blog title and theme would make me someone different or sever me from my past, but, I know it can’t and that in many ways, it is even more important to recognize where I have been, to see where I am going.

It was a bit devastating to discover that after this time, all of my previous WWB blog content was gone. According to Dreamhost, the content was never backed-up and I was unable to restore Wayward Betty as it existed from 2010-2013. After a weekend of panic and scanning old computers and hard drives, I found this amazing internet archive service called Wayback Machine and was able to restore the majority of the content, though, sadly, not all of it. Also, gone for good were also the reader comments and interactions between 2011-2013. It was definitely a learning lesson for me about learning to SAVE CONTENT, but more about my own fears, the creative process, and learning to let go of earlier versions of myself, as well as prior artistic works we must accept as imperfect.

This is the short version. If you used to read my blog, I invite you to read me again. I will post more about my recovery, living abroad, my practices in meditation, travel, mindfulness and motherhood, and everything else in life that is still interesting to me—as always, love, people, the world.

I know I have changed, but so much has. And, don’t we all. In the end, that is the good stuff.