not quite the tough chick

1

It turns out my friend Sam can turn a nice phrase. I’m a writer, so this is maybe more important than it should be.

He emailed me after New Year’s: Where are you, my dark light one?

Some days later, he explained: “You’re easy-going, quick to laugh — there’s a lot of light in you — but your persona also has these streaks of darkness in it.”

He was wearing a Cavalli smoking jacket, which I exclaimed over — I really, really want a cool smoking jacket — and a fedora. After he took off the hat and slung the jacket over the back of a chair, I somehow managed to appropriate both.

I tried them on.

“You’re debonair,” Sam declared, even as I refused to give up the jacket. “I ask myself, ‘Why is Justine so debonair?'”

But I was thinking about the ‘streaks of darkness’ comment. There is a side to your personality that you know about and other people know about; that you know about and other people don’t know about; that neither you nor anyone else knows about (a.k.a. the ‘unconscious’, also ‘what drives you into years of expensive therapy’); and that you don’t know about but other people know about, because they see the things that you can’t.

What some people seemed to figure out long before I ever did is that I’m not quite the tough chick I thought. What Sam called “streaks of darkness” is what another friend once called “a sadness about you”, and perhaps what still another friend termed “a raw vulnerability,” adding, “You definitely exude a sense of strength and toughness, but there’s also this other, contradictory thing, almost a little-girl thing. Like Marilyn Monroe, almost.”

Which kind of flabbergasted me. I am so very not Marilyn Monroe. At least not according to my own damn self…but then again, what do I know?

2

What I’ve learned is this: emotion, no matter how buried, suppressed or denied, has a way of leaking out of you. Sometimes it’s explosive, like when you overreact to some tiny thing that has triggered some little memory in the deep of your mind that triggers another memory and another and another…all the way back to the original source of hurt which has nothing to do with what set you off in the first place, yet is what you’re truly reacting to even though you don’t know it. Sometimes it’s subtle and sly, like a Freudian slip, or a bit of body language, or a nightmare. Sometimes it’s that hole in your chest you get when you ache for someone, except what you’re really aching for is the relationship your child self never had with a parent who just wasn’t there for you.

We are the tip of our own iceberg; so much of us below the surface: secret places of accumulated loss. At 29, I lost a 10-week-old baby son named Nevada Alexander; at 35, I lost a marriage. Others, of course, have lost so much more, and I am profoundly grateful for my life.

3

During our nightly bedtime chat, my son Griffin, age 4, stroked the bandaid on his cheek and told me how a girl pushed him down on the playground. She and her friends laughed at him.

“Did it hurt?” I asked him.

“No.” He tapped the bandage. “But it will hurt if I rip the sticky part off.”

“Did it hurt your feelings, when they were mean to you and laughed at you? That would have hurt my feelings.”

“I didn’t cry,” he said. He elaborated a little more about the incident, saying, “I didn’t cry,” several times.

Only four and he’s already learning to suck it up.

When I was a kid, I got bullied and ostracized for years. It turned my life into that special kind of social, adolescent hell that might be familiar to some of you. Others suffer much worse, of course, but when you’re 11 your perspective is maybe not so mature and junior high seems like it will go on until the end of time (which is when high school starts). I learned young to suck it up, until it became a habit, I could do it without realizing. I would not begin grieving properly for my first son, Nevada, until years after his death. At the time, I just didn’t know how.

I went numb instead.

Problem is, when you learn to deny your own needs, and move into a tough, competitive world, other people will tell you your needs in a way that has everything to do with their own needs, and nothing to do with yours; they don’t even know, or care, who you are.

And that, my friends, is no way to live.

That kind of thing can kill your soul slowly.

It was thoughts like this that went through my head as I watched my sweet, perceptive, sensitive little boy.

“It’s okay to have bad feelings,” I said. “Everybody has bad feelings from time to time. But you need to get them out of you. They’re like little black birds trapped inside of you. You have to set them free. So when you have those bad, hurt feelings, I want you to imagine those little birds rising up through you and flying out the top of your head, okay? A little door opening in the top of your head.” The image reminded me of something from a Shel Silverstein poem; maybe that’s where I got it.

I mean, hey, I’m not exactly Elmo.

“Crying is one really good, important way to get those birds out of you. You just have to do it in private, like going to the bathroom. You can also talk those birds out of you. Just make sure you talk to someone you trust. Like me. You can come to me and cry and talk and we can get those birds out together. Okay?”

He nodded. This seemed to make some kind of sense to him. Or maybe he was humoring me.

“You’re a smart kid,” I told him. “I’m proud of you.”

He brightened. “I’m smart because I think about things! I really think about things in my head!”

“I know you do,” I informed him, then couldn’t resist adding, meaning every bit of it: “You’re very debonair.”

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