Tightrope Act

The thing about going from being invisible as a child to quite visible as an adult is that you’ve learned to value the perks of being seen and unseen, but you haven’t had enough time to experience either, so you’re confounded by both. At least this is Jodie’s experience of it, she thinks, as she sits in her car with the windows rolled up, AC on, and some self improvement podcast playing.

She realizes “This is my life now,” listening to podcasts on the way to and from meeting with donors, practicing her smile in the mirror, trying to get her eyes in on it, not faking so much as helping the whole process along, because the truth is that she loves people and loves the outreach she’s now able to do, but too much schmoozing makes her skin crawl just by default.

It’s crazy to think that there was a period of her life where it was an accomplishment to get out of bed once a day to make a packet of ramen before getting back into bed. Days spent in the miasma of depression, brain fog as roommate, getting lost in the middle of thoughts, and words, and actions. Seeing this again is like watching a movie from the back of the projected screen. It’s all there, the basic components exist as they should, but it just doesn’t feel right.

She remembers that Shel Silverstein piece about Melinda Mae, and how she ate the whale one bite at a time. She remembers how it expanded her mind as a child, how it shone wonder into the corners that once were dark, and so for that reason she doesn’t go back and read it again now. She wants to keep it that way, if she can. That realization that all change, all self-improvement, is iterative, is sequential, is endless.

Waking up in the morning and just breathing, with the specter of yesterday less and less a factor, but still resting on the pillow next to her. Still scarred by it, still not whole and finally okay with the unwholeness, claiming it as her own.

Of listening to the tick of the clock inside of her, and how she always meant to document this mental health outreach as it was happening, to start a blog or something, but then when it actually started happening she could do nothing but be present, even when she wanted not to be. How the people in her life gave her conflicting advice–that presence was what she needed now, or that she could use a distraction, and being stuck somewhere in that nougatty, dissociative center, trying to make a joke of it, laughing when she could, because if she can still laugh then it’s lost at least some of its power over her. Or something like that.

She’s at this place now, surprisingly okay, with the ability to work full-time, and take care of her responsibilities, and help others, and do her outreach work. This high-up tightrope act she’s doing, somehow succeeding at, and the visible, tangible way that it’s helping others. And thinking, realizing, saying to herself: Maybe that’s enough.

 

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What You Always Wanted

There’s a saying about getting what you always wanted, and she’s trying to parse out exactly how it goes without having to Google it. She’s not needing the meaning for posting purposes or anything like that–call it simple curiosity. She’s been doing her outreach for a while now, and her own unique way of showcasing the words of others (getting stories printed wrap-around style on drink cups) has only just now started to take off in a holy-shit, five-news-appearances-in-just-as-many-days sort of way.

She told herself that this is okay, and it is, the long nights spent scouring the streets of the internet, looking for a person who hasn’t been heard but who desperately deserves to be, because giving voice to the voiceless is her specialty, and she almost stopped and took another course of action when she found out that a major restaurant chain had started printing flash fiction on cups, but she kept going with her idea when she realized that they were only publishing established writers, big names, people who would be recognized. But the way she did it, you’d be reading stories you didn’t even know you needed to read, written by your hairdresser, or your mailman, or the woman you pass by every day who’s sleeping on the street.

She started doing it on a whim, self-funded, and whatever wasn’t for rent or absolutely-necessary-food got funneled into this side-project she did after work, testing out different food safe printing techniques, different cup materials, biodegradable a must, and then different inks, collaborating with various artists to spice it up a bit, etc. It was one of those things that tended to dominate conversations with friends and family after a while, and she could tell that while they were supportive, they were also looking for the opportunity for topic change when she went on about it for too long.

The thing about it is that she herself didn’t even really write until she was well into adulthood, and by then there were all those fears and self doubts, the thoughts of old dogs and new tricks, the fire alarm that blares in your head and tells you that you are Too Far Behind, that you will Never Catch Up. When she was a kid, it was AP classes and constant studying, and her parents were the live-vicariously-through-their-kid type that saw her journal scribblings as time better spent cramming, as opposed to the poesy of a budding genius. So she stopped writing for about 12 years.

When she started writing again, really writing, it was like she was coming to after a deep and dreamless sleep, and there were suddenly too many things to do all at once. She immediately had to write in every genre, every style, until she finally felt that she had Caught Up. Mixed in with all of that was reading every literary magazine she could get her hands on, devouring content like it was her job, which even back then she had the feeling that it was–or that it could be.

There comes a time when all of your hard work pays off, when the camera is on you and the kind and smiling person behind the camera and slightly to the left or right of it is waiting for an answer to the question they just asked you, and you have to pause for a second. Not because of anxiety, or rather not only that. You have to take a second to appreciate the fact that this is happening. You are not dreaming, this is not a joke, you are actually exactly where you wanted to be when you first started out.

She remembers the saying about getting what you always wanted, or at least an iteration of it. The old Willy Wonka film, the one she grew up on and still returns to every couple years. The last lines of the film:

“Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.”

“What happened?”

“He lived happily ever after.”

Interregnum

I could pinpoint the place between recognizing something was wrong in my neighborhood and taking action by the golden glint of a Winchester shell tucked safely between the cracks of sidewalk slabs, sidewalk right next to some kid’s chalk art, probably the kid I passed on my walk to work every morning, waiting for the bus, and I could see a younger me when I looked at him, a version of myself I’d forgotten about, the one whose baseline was anger and uncertainty, fear mixed in, knowing only poverty and its effects on people. This kid reading stories of superheroes and wondering when they’d come to his neighborhood, why they never showed when he needed them most.

There was the interregnum between action and inaction, going along with the status quo and assuming that That’s Just The Way Things Were. Only it wasn’t. Not necessarily. Because we are the deciders of our fate, the makers of community. Badges and words can only do so much, offer so much lip service to a community that’s bleeding out, day after day, unable to help its most vulnerable. There’s an antecedent to every action. Newton’s law. Etc.

So you can walk down these streets now, at night, barely different than you were before, but with purpose now, green excitement, green nerves, can walk past the tenement buildings with boards over windows here and there, spreading like pox of sickness, and the way the dying fire alarms inside these apartments beep at different pitches in their life cycle, batteries just about to go out.

You can see the side of the city that everyone would rather hide in its closet or shove under its bed, the monster that no one dare speak of, not even report on in the papers, for fear that Development should stall, that Progress might halt. The divide of crossing over the highway and going from marketing startups and hipster coffee shops to abject poverty, of seeing this stark reality on a daily basis, on walks both during the day and at night, and the knowledge that something has to change.

Of getting started.