Just beneath the surface of normal

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On Being Sensitive to Immeasurable Suffering

I’m the first to admit that I’m more than a little too empathetic. I have always had to curate what I watch on tv and in the movies, because I have a terrible sense of what they call “suspension of disbelief.” Basically I have a hard time feeling the difference between what is happening to characters and what is happening to me personally.

As you can imagine, I was the life of the fucking slumber party at 10. All my friends wanted to watch Nightmare on Elm Street for the 97th time, and I was like, “can’t we just rent Desperately Seeking Susan again? Or how about Earth Girls Are Easy?” I very quickly learned to look away and just fall asleep during horror movies, because otherwise I would lie awake terrified in a strange house positive that every sound was someone trying to kill us, while my friends drifted off obliviously. Also I spent my summers living in the woods with my dad. Friday the 13th basically rendered my entire environment potentially dangerous. Hell, I was even afraid of running into E.T. out there (at seven, I spent over half of E.T. in the lobby of the theater, because it scared the fuck out of me). So violent or scary movies were not ever really part of my growing up. I loved Star Trek and Steve Martin and Danger Mouse – sanitary sci-fi, comedies, and clever cartoons.

Even then I couldn’t always protect myself. When X-Men came out, I sat on the curb afterward and sobbed because Rogue not being able to touch anyone ever was the saddest possible thing I could imagine. My first husband was like, “oh my God, are you serious right now? It’s X-Men! It’s fantasy. It’s for KIDS! Get up and let’s go home.”

When Lord of the Rings came out, I only went because my best friend promised to help me through it. She would hold on to my hand and say “this part is going to be really violent, but it doesn’t last very long. Close your eyes and I will tell you when it’s over.” And she would squeeze my hand while the noises got scary, but I knew what was coming so I could handle it. And I was really glad I got to see LoTR, because it was fucking brilliant.

But this post isn’t supposed to be about movies. I wish it were, because even though I get caught up in them, movies aren’t real. What is real is the waves and waves of suffering the news keeps washing up. Today a hotel in Mali is taken hostage. Before that, Syria, Paris, Nigeria, Beiruit, and on and on and on – people in terror, grief, and pain. Bloody devastation everywhere. Except in these cases I can’t just turn away until it’s over, because it will never be over. There has always been pain and rage and loss. Someone is always plotting revenge for their own grief in a cycle of suffering that every religion tells some kind of story about, because it’s pretty much always been there.

When I turned on the radio and heard today’s tragedy, I climbed back into bed and pulled the covers over my head, just for a minute, just to turn away and find comfort so that I could go out into that world and not get overwhelmed by its pain. That sense of agency is a luxury plenty of people in the world don’t have right now, and that’s what got me back up and moving. People without blankets or food. Without the people they love to touch them, without sanitation, without a home, without a sense of power. I wish there were a way to love the world whole and bring peace, and it’s an entirely selfish wish because I can’t seem to stop imagining the sort of suffering that leads to that level of heartless violence, or the suffering that reaction engenders. So I walk around raw and heartbroken, because that’s what I imagine it feels like in their shoes.

I think I understand why Buddhists pray for the immeasurables – because they don’t fucking know what else to do in the face of mountains and mountains of pain, relentlessly piling up across the planet every day forever. I don’t either, so let me add my voice:

May all beings have happiness
and the causes of happiness;
May all beings be free from suffering
and the causes of suffering;
May all beings never be separated from
the happiness that knows no suffering;
May all beings live in equanimity,
free from attachment and aversion.


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Sometimes You Just Have to Maraud

Every marriage has its own weird language that’s kind of hard to explain to outsiders. I’m going to try to explain a bit of ours so that I can tell you a story.

First of all, Jim came to me with the nickname Bear. That’s what Corinne called him, which conveniently sidestepped the whole complicated “what do you call the step-dad” mess. Together we have a number of bears, and there are many stories told about their antics, including the absurd lengths to which they will go to procure hidden sweets in the house. When something is askew, we nod to each other knowingly and whisper, “bears.” When I get overwhelmed – which happens to me sometimes – he says “your bear is right here if you need him,” and it is really incredibly comforting.

Early on, I tried to be a bear too. It never quite fit, though I had my momma bear moments when the world would fuck with my kid. We tried on a few things, and I don’t even remember any more how we landed on tiger, or why it was a secret. But I am the Secret Tiger (except it’s not a secret any more, I guess – I’ve always been horrible with secrets. Never give me secrets unless you explicitly tell me to forget as soon as you’re done telling me, which I can do, but I can’t hold onto a secret for any period of time. This is why I do my holiday shopping at the last minute).  When Jim gets overwhelmed, I say “tigers are standing by” and he finds it incredibly comforting.

It’s not THAT unusual.

After a decade, a whole lore and language has arisen around our alter-egos. I have other friends who have evolved other versions, and I suspect it’s a common thing in intimate relationships.

Anyway, today we had to run errands, but we were both feeling overwhelmed. Unfortunately, the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon was pretty much unavoidable, even though we just needed one thing. We made a plan:

Jim: We’re just going to get in and get out. No browsing today.
Me: Right. We’re marauding.
Jim: YES! Let’s maraud!
Me: Rawr!
Jim: we’re more-odding. Those people are less-odding, but we’re more-odding.
Me: none more odd!

And that’s how we made it through there in 10 minutes with nobody dropping everything and running. Afterwards there were celebratory fist bumps. Now we are sitting at home in the quiet for a few minutes before we do the next Thing Which Must Be Done.

There really is nothing in the world like someone you can be vulnerable with.

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Greeting Cards: Now With Actual Empathy

Today is the 11th day I’ve been sick. Today is the day I woke up with pinkeye. What the hell? Do childless adults even GET pinkeye? Probably they do when their doctors blew off their symptoms a week ago and they have a festering sinus infection. How is that doctors under age 30 are even a thing? I should be able, by virtue of my damn life experience as ME, be a slightly greater authority on my body than your diagnostic software and your still-damp medical license. I’m just sayin’.

"How long have you been having these symptoms, doo-doo head?"

“How long have you been having these symptoms, doo-doo head?”

Anyway, after two delightful days at work (that’s how you know it’s bad – when you’re so sick of being sick that you say fuck it and go to work because at least you can be sick somewhere less boring), I’m back home on the couch in my bathrobe, feeling my eyelashes stick together every time I blink, and surfing the Internet.

One of my favorite things about social media is that despite being sort of a shut-in, I get to find out about neat things. The work of Emily McDowell is one of the neatest things I’ve found out about in awhile (though evidently she’s been making them since May, because viral is weird that way). They’re greeting cards for vulnerable, emotionally intelligent people! Why is there not more of this in the world?! Why do other greeting cards even need to exist anymore? The entire greeting card aisle is fired.

This is the best thing ever. I will probably never be that pithy, but I really wish I were.

If I were going to get a card right now (or ever), I would want it to be one of Emily’s. I am trying to avoid buying everything in her shop in my vulnerable state; so far I have loaded up my cart, but not hit check out. So…it’s not looking good for me. However it’s looking pretty amazing for Ms. McDowell.