I’m writing this because I need to. I’m putting it out there because a few people need to know, and although it’s unlikely those will be the ones who read it, I can’t control that. Everything I have to say has been with me always—but while I believed these thoughts/behaviors to be symbiotic, I realize now they’re parasitic. One of us must go, either the other-directed self or the true self, such as it is, and I finally know who I’m rooting for.
About six months ago I started to feel pain in my left hip. My ass, really, since I’m being honest here. After rounds of doctor visits and physical therapy and an MRI I was diagnosed with a form of tendon damage where my hamstring joins my sit bone. It’s an overuse injury from running. Because I ran. I ran starting when I was almost 30, late to the game, but for 14 years with a brief interruption during pregnancy, I ran and I loved it. On occasion I cried when I ran, mostly from the overwhelming joy of being in my body as I ran, but sometimes because the miles had prepared me to feel something I hadn’t been ready for. When my husband was sick with cancer, I cried on every run, usually about mile 2, and then I would pause and sob and feel everything and start running home where I could then not cry in front of him and our daughter. I ran alone but also in half-marathons with crowds of other people who were also running alone. I saw them cry and smile and wince. I offered them help, directions, first aid, just as they did to me. I waved and gave them high fives and thumbs up as we passed. I was a runner.
I am not a runner now. I don’t run. My body and my doctor have told me to stop. But because of the impact of the injury and its location, I am also unable to sit comfortably for longer than half an hour. I can’t walk long distances while I recover and indeed I’ve been demoted off of traditional physical therapy while the inflammation calms. I have only discussed this as necessary because I worried about seeming like I’m feeling sorry for myself. It’s not that bad compared to what could be going on, I tell myself. Nevertheless, my injury has changed my life in ways I would not have had it change. I’m grieving the loss of something I loved. Once it starts, the pain is intense and unyielding, unalleviated by anything but standing. I’ve sat in pain at meetings and readings because it makes other people feel uncomfortable when only one person is standing.
I’ve put myself in pain to make other people comfortable.
Around the time that my injury flared up, I was kicking into high gear to publish a book I believed in, one that seemed to knot together all the threads of me: feminism, rural culture, fear, unbelonging, nature, solitude, anger. My editor believed in it, my family believed in it, and I was foolish enough to believe I had garnered just a bit of good will or even, dare I say, respect as a writer. I held a reading at my college. Out of my two dozen department colleagues, one came—the one who was obligated to as chair of the committee that sponsored it. I planned a book launch at an independent book store, bought a cute dress that worked out perfectly for the beautiful sunny day. And almost no one came. Not a single co-worker I’d invited, nor any of the writers I’d been to see over the past years, many of whom had assured me they’d be there. A few weeks earlier, I’d driven that same road in winter storm warning, my pain level screaming, to go to a reading of many area writers who had published in a major journal. Not one of those people came to mine. It’s the weather, the bookstore manager nicely said, and I could see his pity. One or two people bothered to write a note saying they were sorry they couldn’t come. But most people just didn’t bother, and there’s no better way to say it. The day was lovely and they didn’t bother. If people reading this feel bad because they are among those who let me down, I’m going to let them have that feeling. It’s not nearly as bad as I felt, I guarantee.
I do not expect a quid pro quo at all. Support is not something you give only to receive it in equal measure. But at the same time it’s not something you can only give and never receive. The complete nothingness of my book’s arrival is a smoldering burn inside me, another injury that I can’t figure out how to heal.
Last week I was away. I had moments of wi-fi and I posted a picture or two, but for the most part I was well and truly gone. I saw no news, read few updates, closed up my email. When I returned and logged onto social media, a familiar nauseous insecurity swept back through me. Look at the endless accomplishments, publications, beauty; look at the humblebrags; look at poetry’s micro-dramas sweeping people into frenzies of denunciation. I wondered why I felt the need to return. Is this what I’ve called the price? And if so, what is it I think I have to pay for? Why was I simply taking time away from myself to present a version of myself that I thought people would like, cheer for, support? It didn’t work. Once again, I’m not asking for reciprocity, not even a fair exchange for the price I’m paying. But I can’t only give to a community of people who pull the rope up behind them as they climb.
I haven’t fully articulated this before because I didn’t want people to feel uncomfortable.
I’ve put myself in pain so others can be comfortable.
I’m in the process of learning how to end that behavior.
I have people. When I was getting ready for my trip and brainstorming with my husband about how I would deal with my pain, he bought me all-weather notebooks and a weatherproof pen so I could write in the downpours. It was possibly the most amazing gift he’s given me, seeing me as a writer in all conditions. My daughter sometimes looked over during the trip and asked if I was hurting, told me I was doing great. My parents are behind me always. I have probably a dozen writer friends scattered around the country who I know would show up for me if they could. And I have my poetry voice—she’s a girl who’s ready to give up on her hypocritical village and head for the woods with anyone who wants to go. Already waiting there in the woods are the writers I most need—Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Mew, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Amy Levy—women who are lost and found and lost again, misconstrued, who wrote because they needed to.
So I’ll be out there, but on my terms. I’ll be on social media when I truly want to be, but not because of obligation or fear of invisibility. I’ve spent so many hours putting myself out there just to be invisible anyway. I need to let myself be a writer who writes and reads, who sometimes publishes, who puts a book out and doesn’t need it to be affirmed beyond its existence. I’m going to keep a little of this water for myself and stop going thirsty.
I need to stand up. I need to stand up and stop experiencing pain so others can feel comfortable.
I try to think of the poster for Captain Marvel, where Carol Danvers stands up, her fists ready to light up, her shoulders back and hips square, smiling for no one. What if what I think is a gift people have given me—quiet tolerance, bland scraps of acceptance—is really a way of preventing me from using my power? What if I rip this thing off my neck and light the fuck up? What if my standing at the ready isn’t about what I can’t do but what I can? What if the next move is flight?