Please visit me at michelledowd.org
I have failed at more things than I have achieved. I have made nearly every mistake self-help experts warn you not to make. I am kind and loyal and I have an intense work ethic, but I am also messy, impatient, passionate and unpredictable.
Why should you trust me?
But I want to encourage you to trust yourself.
Because curious people always have more questions than answers, and we don’t always need to know exactly where we’re going to appreciate the climb. If we can learn to navigate by our internal compass, while filtering out the noise of conformity, we can curate a life that inspires us. For me, that means showing up daily for my practice, both on and off the mat. Whatever I get wrong, no matter how many times I fail, I come back to my mat. I show up and do the work. I breathe, get grounded, re-center. I apologize, make amends, learn from my mistakes, re-direct. I forgive myself and others. I invite myself back to the practice.
I created a literary journal several years ago. The phenomenal team I work with is currently curating our 17th volume. From the beginning, our motto has been, join the conversation.
And so I do.
I grew up in a small, conservative, isolated community and escaped to Pitzer College when I was 17. Iquickly married a boy I grew up with, earned a degree in English and World Literatures and moved to Boulder at 21 to teach at the University of Colorado and work toward a PhD I didn’t quite finish. I gave birth to 4 children in rapid succession, began a newsletter/magazine called SmartKids, taught at numerous colleges before earning a tenured professorship, and bought and sold several houses before finding home. I have loved and lost and been so sad, I thought I couldn’t continue. But I was committed to the profession of teaching and to being present for my children every day of their lives, so I showed up for these two commitments with everything I had in me.
I am immensely proud of the young adults my kids have become and of the students, former and current, whom I learn from daily as an adviser of college media.
I am a professor, yogi, writer, aerialist, runner, hiker, mother, sister, friend and lover.
But mostly, I am a student of life.
We’re all just trying to figure out how to build a solid airplane to take off in. We begin again.
–Photo by Andrija Bloom
You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?
I’ve had a lot of strong feelings this week. I’ve tried to allow myself to feel them, to feel the full extent of them, to let it hurt as much as it hurts. I haven’t distracted myself with any of the things that can typically provide escape–exercise, work, food, substances, texting, relationships, touch. I’m not running away. I’ve sat alone with the pain and the darkness. It started with hours. It’s turned into days.
I had no idea how many layers of strength this would take. I had no idea the pain went that deep. Each time I thought I had hit bottom, there was a trap door that opened and there was more underneath.
Maybe there is still more. Maybe I have not yet hit bottom.
But I am staying here until I do.
The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, rooted in Zen Buddhism, is exemplified by the custom of celebrating cracks rather than discarding the cracked object. If a container is old and worn, cracked and leaking, an artist fills the cracks with gold, showing the broken places, rather than hiding them. In so doing, the container is made distinct and useful again. In this tradition, over time, the vessel takes on a new beauty, and is honored and prized because of (not in spite of) its obvious flaws.
The culture of wabi-sabi celebrates the beauty of imperfection and the wisdom of the experiences that break us. When the cracks are filled in with gold, they are highlighted rather than hidden, celebrated rather than denied. An untrained eye might think such an object is garish or embarrassing, but there is a perverse beauty in dramatizing imperfection. Wabi-sabi embraces this.
I am broken and scarred, but my cracks are where the light gets in.
I like being prepared, so everywhere I go, I carry bags to compartmentalize the clothes and tools I need for the numerous jobs I do. I am a person who over-schedules, over-exercises, over-plans, over-commits, and I have a messy car that dramatizes this. When I’m working on something I believe in, I go all in, focusing so intently, I forget to eat, forget to rest, neglect my friends, push people away, lock myself in a sort of solitary confinement. Sometimes I get physically ill.
But I am more than my worst traits, more than an amalgam of my annoying flaws. Most of the time, I give people my undivided attention, even if it messes with my overbooked schedule. Most of the time, I practice yoga and meditation and peace-making, slowing down, becoming present. I send handwritten notes to loved ones, tend a garden, share the harvest. Most of the time, I follow my heart over my head and actively defy the social barriers of religion, class, gender, ethnicity and age, loving boldly and courageously. I stand up for what I believe in, especially when it’s threatened by something more powerful, even when I know I can’t win. And if what I’m fighting for requires me to go up against something stronger than I am, I step into the ring anyway, and go down swinging, to the very end.
When I lose, sometimes someone will reach down, take my hand, and sit with my brokenness.
Maybe this time, that person is me.
I am loyal, loving, chaotic, dramatic, and broken.
“The world breaks everyone,” Ernest Hemingway said, “and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
Photo by Andrija Bloom
Gayle died when we were fourteen. We were roommates in the Hematology/Oncology ward in Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles the spring of our thirteenth year, both theoretically in the eighth grade, though neither of us actually went to school.
We kept up a constant chatter about blood counts and needle marks, bone marrow tests, cafeteria menus, diet soft drinks, jealous siblings, and the trials of our wayward hair, even as hers fell out daily in clumps, while mine grew curly and unkempt. We discussed what our chances were of ever growing up, whether we would get to go to high school, whether we would ever get to kiss a boy.
People said we could be sisters, twins even. We kept our window shade open, grateful for our tiny corner view of the mountains, the television conspicuously off, our dialogue dramatic, until one day, after multiple blood transfusions and an experimental splenectomy, I was discharged with high hopes of a full recovery. We waved goodbye, said our girlish goodlucks, and I tucked her picture into my wallet, her cursive writing wide and smiling on the back, dotted with purple hearts: here’s to a happy high school.
We wrote to each other with devoted regularity, until she died nine weeks later. I secured her letters and picture in the back of my makeup drawer and moved on. I didn’t like to think of her in the months or years after that, of why God apparently wanted her next to His side, certain that she was more of an angel than I would ever be, but not daring to question that line of reasoning. I closed that chapter definitively, turned away from the memories, tried desperately to acclimate to a life where people didn’t talk about white blood cells or platelet counts. My drive to be normal (fueled by what I now recognize as survivor’s guilt) kept me from contacting her parents, from offering her letters to them, from ever acknowledging their perpetual grief. I left her and them behind, sprinting toward what I assumed would be an early finish.
Here is her picture. I still look at it from time to time, at the frozen child she will always be in a world I have long since outgrown.
I remember her blonde wig, designed to look like Farrah Fawcett. I remember Gayle’s father kneeling at her bedside, his trembling prayers to our Heavenly Father, uttered aloud, prayers that ultimately would go unanswered. Can I still be angry at that God, even now?
I spent so long repressing anger.
When it comes to hospitals, I have no idea what is normal. But I know what is true.
I didn’t earn my life. Gayle and I were interchangeable. There was no method to the madness of our illnesses, no reason why I got better, why she did not.
We didn’t kiss, but the first boy who held my hand did so in Children’s Hospital when I was 16. Since the veins in my inner wrists and the inner creases of my elbows were blown out, he curled his fingers around the needle taped onto the back of my boney hand. I let him, because he was the only one there.
In the hospital, we were a number. Our wristbands dictated what could and couldn’t be done to us. Gayle and I had no agency, no ability to rebel. We weren’t integrated into a school or class or pop culture. We thrived on imagination and hypothesis. Gayle talked of love and I told her we would have it. We wanted out of those lonely twin beds. We wanted someone to love us enough to invite us into their world, to be introduced to their friends and family. We wanted to know we were real.
I am still fighting to be real.
During my first year of college, I received a registered letter in the mail from Children’s Hospital, suggesting I get my blood tested immediately. The blood donated in the eighties was not screened for AIDS. Some children from those months in those wards were now HIV positive. The letter informed me about testing options and recommended I seek appropriate counseling.
This didn’t frighten me in the least. As a virgin, I felt no stigma. I went to the clinic with barely a thought of the past or of the future. If my luck had run out, I had lived more years than I had once hoped for. I had made it out of the hospital, into college, and I trusted in all my youthful naivete that I had already lived a bigger life than Gayle.
Now I know how finite life is. Now I know there are things I haven’t done, things I hope to experience before its my time to leave this earth. There are things Gayle and I talked about that I still haven’t done. There are ways I still want to grow.
As grown up as we thought we were, I know now that our lives had barely begun, that the decades since have changed everything we once knew. I see my son and my daughters and my heart crushes the air from my chest for Gayle’s parents.
I have four adult children older than I was when I got the call to get tested.
I answer a new call, now. And no matter what the outcome, I know my death would do more harm to them than it would to me. There are milestones in their future that would be tragic without the presence of the woman who bore and raised them. I may be easily and immediately replaceable as a lover and life partner, but I am not replaceable to them.
Gayle has no children. Gayle has an eternal adolescence looking back at me from her angelic photo. Is this any consolation to her father and her mother, for whom she will always be a child, their beautiful and innocent teenager, stuck in a dated hairstyle, without even the luxury of hair?
I don’t know what my next hospital stay will include, or whether I will ever have the integrated life she and I dreamed of. But I know the memory of Gayle will be with me, and I know if she were in the room, she would hold my hand until the very end, and she would say, with her sweet demonic smile, “at least you got to kiss a boy.”
It is not as if what is true, right, urgent and necessary is a light, and what is harm is darkness. They are both darkness; they are both lights. –Anne Boyer
There are very few phrases my father has ever spoken aloud to me. “I love you” is not one of them. “Never depend on a man” is. And I don’t, in fact, rely on men for emotional sustenance, for income, or for praise. Sometimes men provide these things for women, but sometimes they don’t, and I resist disappointment like a used handkerchief.
Back when we were all small, before our family fell off the ledge, my sisters and brother and I shared a bedroom in the only house we would ever own, a soon-to-be foreclosed 800 square foot shelter bordering the city dump. Back when we lived on dreams and loans, I used to rise early, when it was virtually silent, to watch my father get ready for work.
I would sit on the counter in the bathroom while he lathered his face with Noxzema, heating the water until it fogged the mirror, watching while he slid his razor across his preternatural white face. Sometimes I would dip my fingers into the cream and softly, tentatively, quietly mold it onto my girly face. My father tolerated this in silence, without so much as a nod. One time, when he was finished shaving, before he splashed on his Old Spice with a virulent shake, he took the blade out of the razor and handed me the empty shell. I carefully stroked my tender cheeks with the vacuous metal, until each white row had vanished and I looked like a little girl again. Then I splashed my face with water and looked to him for approval. He didn’t comment, but he held my gaze, and I felt something akin to respect. There was validation in the motions I had sequenced, almost in tandem with his, the rituals of manhood like a handshake between us.
My older sister later told me that girls don’t shave their faces, but that wasn’t of particular interest to me. Our home was a man’s world, where brute strength still ruled, and I was proud that I had stood there next to him, doing what men do. I loved watching his calm face in the mirror, as every errant hair was meticulously removed. My sisters often claimed he looked like a bear, that they were frightened of him, of his gruff manners and his guttural growl. And to be frank, I was often frightened of him myself–but not as I sat on the bathroom counter, not during his morning ritual, not while I could see my face in the mirror next to his.
It’s simpler to remember the brutality, to focus on the slaps and the slugs that came later, on the random anger, the cage of violence, the tightening spine of fear. It’s simpler to negate moments like these, to dismiss early morning reflections in a mirror, to see them as the anomalies they certainly were.
And yet, I wonder now if he shared mornings like these with his own father when he was small, before his mother took him far away on a bus in the night, away from abuses he never spoke of.
My father is turning 81 this week. My sister tells me he is still strong and athletic, that he swims daily and has a mean golf swing. She says he’s still taller than everyone around him, but he doesn’t bow his head to listen, that he carries himself regally, with no real expressions. She says he’s calmer with age, and he’s gentler when he blows his nose on the handkerchief he still keeps folded in his pocket.
My father was twelve when his mother executed their stealthy get-away, when the two of them rode on a bus across the entire country to forge a new home. She didn’t tell him they were leaving, so he never said goodbye to his friends or his father. Long before he could become my grandfather, my father’s father died of alcoholism and pneumonia, a man alone in his early 40’s, estranged from his wife and teenage son. He made it to California, but my father didn’t know his father arrived here or that he died here. Not until many years later, when he visited the military grave, long grown cold.
My father never speaks of these things.
The first boy who loved me called me a cat. His father died when we were in our early teens, and my father became his coach and mentor. We grew up together in a strange, small world. We escaped in different ways, and both married and had children young, though not with each other. He told me later, “girl, your dad pushed me to be a man, but he just pushed you away.” He laughed, and then stopped laughing. He said that when I was pushed, sometimes it was from skyscraper heights, that he’d seen my fear, but didn’t step in to help, that I’d squirm and screech and hiss and flail, but I would land on my feet. He said he grew to respect me for that.
I told him that sounds like a form of torture, that people shouldn’t take cats up to skyscrapers, let alone drop them off ledges. He said I could handle it, that it was my lot in this world to be brutalized, that I would survive.
During a particularly difficult juncture not long ago, he called to remind me of this. I assured him I had come to the end of my nine lives, that my luck had rampantly run out. “Ahhhh, but it’s not luck,” he assured me, “it’s in your training. It’s so well-rehearsed, it looks like instinct, but I know you and I know where you come from. Fact is, you know how to fall.”
Maybe so. But I think it’s time to stop letting men push me off buildings.
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Thoughts and rants from another angry woman
Faulkner said, kill your darlings. I say, put them on the internet and let strangers read them.
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This is my blog. I write a lot about autism, raising boys, and my own alcohol consumption. I also tend to cover topics like poop and toothpaste. You've been warned.
about all things human
"Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences." - Sylvia Plath
essayist, poet, college prof, hubby, dad, Queen fan
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"To hold a pen is to be at war." -Voltaire