To Past and Future Selves

A note: I have not abandoned my How To series. I will write 100 of those essays, or I will die. I’m just expanding what a blog can be for. It can have multiple purposes. I’m opening up. It’s fine.


I spent an embarrassing amount of time today looking back at an old Blogspot blog from 10 years ago, when I’d recently moved to New Orleans and was trying to beat my depression and reaction to trauma by documenting a lot of attempted adventure. The idea behind this blog — “Big, Easy Sophie,” and good luck finding it; the internet seems to want it to be hard to look at (I had to get to it through the Blogspot host platform, which yes, still exists) — was that I would try to become more fun. I would do this by setting small, measurable goals for myself (thanks, TFA) like: “Today I will tell one joke”; or, “Today I will go to a new museum”; or, “For this entire week I will go to see jazz music all by myself.” (My memory says that I did that every night for a week — the jazz music thing — but that can’t really have been true. I’m sure that I did it for a few nights in a row. It’s so hard to do ANYTHING for a whole week. Life always gets in the way. I do have a memory of ordering a White Russian at some tourist bar that had a seafaring theme because the bartender said she enjoyed making White Russians. I remember being so confused by the whole concept of a White Russian — is it a milkshake type of thing? Or more of a sophisticated cocktail? — that I couldn’t decide if it was something I liked.)

I’ve been spending a lot of time with old diaries lately for a project I’m working on (stand by, I guess), and today I found it interesting how the person I was ten years ago, language-wise, is exactly the person I am now plus the person I was twenty years ago. Twenty-three-year-old Sophie loved adverbs and hyperbole, and so did thirteen-year-old Sophie. Twenty-three-year-old Sophie loved specific, sense-driven descriptions, and 33-year-old Sophie likes those things, too. I wondered what it would be like to be 43. How much would I be like myself at 23? How much would I be like myself today? At what point do noticeable changes happen? Are there adequate rituals to mark them?

I asked my mom about the difference between being 60 and being 70 and she replied with something like, “Time gets faster; you get slower.” This is the problem with having a wise mom. Is my mom the same at 70 as she was at 60? Am I at 33 the same as my mom was at 33? What memories stay with us, and why? I submitted to her that these were easy and fun questions for a Friday morning.

Like, my current memory has inside of it the jazz club week during my campaign to have more fun in New Orleans (see paragraph one), but it had completely forgotten that I went to an Alligator Museum on Magazine Street that same month. Also, there is a line in a blog post from 10 years ago that insists that I really wanted to “finish my damn novel already” and that I had “350 pages of mess” written and I just needed to finish. I have no memory of having ever written anything like a novel, except for at 13 (whoa, there’s THAT age again) when I put together a long handwritten fiction about people gathered all in the same terminal at an airport. So why did my 23-year-old self want to tell the internet that she was working on a novel? I’ve never been self-identified as a fiction writer, I don’t think. So WHY?

Partially I tell you this because I am happy that I have all those blog posts from that year. There are some really amazing and interesting ones that surprise me and make me feel a deep affection for this 23-year-old person. One of them says simply, “Rest in Peace, Brutus. I felt you had so much potential, but I guess it just wasn't meant to be. At least, I hope it was peaceful and not terrifying to die.” That’s the whole thing. For context: this entry was about a baby rat who had wriggled onto my toe while I was cleaning dishes in my neighbor’s kitchen. I thought I could save it and so I put it in a small terrarium where it promptly died.

I also love that 23-year-old Sophie got in trouble for moving thumbtacks around on a bulletin board that wasn’t hers to play with, and that she was likewise scolded for taking out a class mouse in a classroom where she sat in a night school teacher training session. I kind of love that 23-year-old Sophie even thought to DO those things. Thirty-three-year-old Sophie is way too scared to mess with stuff like that.

There’s another post that’s similarly short that says only, “Still no Snowball. Isn't there ANYONE out there who will go and get a Snowball with me? A lonely Snowball just doesn't sound that good.” That one makes me remember a lot that’s not written: that after I posted it, Miranda Talbot from school went to get a Snowball with me; that we got the Snowball from a stand on Napoleon, and that we vowed to make our own website where we would review all the Snowball stands in New Orleans and call it “Sno Big Deal.” That was the last time we went out together, and I think Miranda is married now, but I’m not sure.

A student from my first year teaching died last week. It hit me really hard. But what hit harder was remembering how I used to react to news like this: with horror and sadness and righteousness, and with a belief that this kind of tragedy was mine to write about. I wrote and told stories all the time back then about other people’s losses; about my own thoughts in the wake of systemic grief. I know that it seems right now a little like I’m doing the same thing, and maybe in some ways I am. But also I’m trying to grapple with what it means to have been so afraid of the truth for so long that I wrote over and over again about anything but.

By which I mean: the losses my students and their families have weathered in the decade I’ve been teaching are NOT mine to write about. And my desire to write about them is all tied up with my desire to avoid dealing with (1) my own trauma; (2) my very real part in the systems of white supremacy that cause these tragedies; and (3) the actual work necessary to be with real people and their actual grief. Writing about a tragedy and sitting still with someone who has gone through tragedy are two totally separate things. The latter task ought to be a prerequisite for the former, but so many of us don’t know how to be with other people’s pain. That is because it’s hard for us — especially for people with a lot of privilege — to face the reality that we can’t take away the discomfort; we can’t fix the problem. The real job when others are grieving is to show up and be present with everything that’s there, and that is hard work that a lot of us are unwilling to do.

Besides, you know: you’ll never get any credit for it. I hate how much credit I wanted 10 years ago. I wanted credit for fixing problems that I actively helped create. I feel ashamed about that.

And also, the work of being a first-year teacher in the Recovery School District WAS hard, and I was totally unprepared. I hurt all the time. This does NOT mean that my suffering was greater than other people’s, or that my sad story is the one that needs telling. But I want to own that I got hurt; that I endured pain; and that I never believed that it was okay to say any of those things because (1) think of how much worse it could have been; and (2) people who fix problems don’t have time to ask for help.

Big, Easy Sophie, the person, made fun of herself for disliking her job, and she stoically blamed herself for every lesson plan that went wrong and every insult she weathered. There is a difference between playing a victim (“don’t be a martyr,” I remember hearing a lot as a kid) and experiencing and naming one’s suffering.

Big, Easy Sophie wrote sometimes that the system was broken, but she held out hope that she was a part of a big change that would ultimately fix the system. Yelling about the system being broken and keeping your head down to muscle through a righteous task is not the same as listening to the pain of a community; or helping to hold the violent reality of oppression.

These differences may seem subtle, but they aren’t. Partially, I think they have to do with time. Being with the reality of pain takes time. It is not necessarily “solution-oriented.” And it requires letting go of one’s ego a little bit, and that’s hard.

Yesterday, I sat at the dining room table with my friend Bethany. (She and her husband are moving in with us soon; we share a classroom; and this summer Bethany and I went on a 16-mile walk, AND WE LIKED IT; and those are the things I will say about her for now.) We were talking about what it was to be human. I said something about how humans are broken in that we think about the past and we think about the future. I mean: I am sitting in the yard as I write this because I like to watch the chickens. I am inspired by their ability to be totally present; to feel their feelings as they come, react accordingly, and move on. Wendy just got too hot running in the sun and now she is nesting in the shade, and soon she will be hungry and she will eat that weed she’s sleeping under, and hey, there’s one fewer weed I have to deal with. Humans are not chickens. (I prefer chickens.)

I went through a big change this year, and a lot of that came into focus for me this summer, when I came to a decision that I’d never been willing to fully take on before: I would like to be a person who tells the truth. This means that even if I would like to have written 350 pages of scattered storyline, I will not tell people that I am working on a novel if I’m not. It also means that when I’m sad or mad of tired, I am going to own those feelings instead of pushing them away and coming up with lessons or explanations for them. Since I have a lot of feelings, I think that I am going to lose some people I have won over through the very hard work of trying to convince them that I’m a Good Person who has Better Than Average abilities to survive. In fact, I’m just a regular person, and my capacity is middling. This fake-it-til-you-make-it kind of energy in me has died. I’m too tired and beat up to fake it anymore. At least for the time being.

What’s interesting to me about this apparent divulgence is that it kinda seems like I made the exact same one 10 years ago when I wrote my end-of-the-school-year blog reflection. I wrote that that year I’d learned the following:

"I learned I didn't have as thick a skin as I thought."

To me, this was an enormous revelation. Let me just say, I used to think I was about the strongest, toughest human being in the whole world. I used to think that if you shot me with a bullet, it would bounce right off, because THAT'S HOW FUCKING THICK my outer layer was.

I used to say things like, "Whatever, I'm used to it;" and "I'm not a crier." In my mind, this was a huge selling point to my person.

It’s so interesting that I could see all of this ten years ago, but I have to tell you, at least out loud, I immediately forgot about it. I think it’s incredibly scary to admit to other people in any kind of real way that you are experiencing A Feeling. If they judge you for your Feeling, then they are judging something that is true about you. And that’s so much worse than if they judge a lie.

So we’ll see how it goes. One thing Big, Easy Sophie made me long for was a time when I could write in my blog every day about the tiny minutiae — phone calls to Nadim, shoveling snow, crying in the car, teaching science, watching “X-Files” — without needing it to all tie together into some neat package. I knew, at least a little, that no one important would really read what I wrote. Now, it’s scarier to get things wrong, or to be too … too.

Do you want me to tell you the truth? (I’ve never ever said this out loud, world.) The truth is that I kept that blog because I desperately wanted my ex-boyfriend from college to read it. I thought if he saw me as fun and interesting he would regret breaking up with me.

I have no delusions about ex-boyfriends reading my blog, now. What is more likely is that you, reader, are either (1) a person who is curious about polyamory and is having a hard time understanding if I am a person who writes sufficiently about polyamory or if I am just another armchair philosopher on the internet (it’s the latter, sorry to say); (2) Jen O’Neil (hi, Jen!); (3) my mom (hi, Mom!); or (4) someone who Googled something like “how to find four leaf clovers,” and you’re disappointed by what I’ve written, and you’re sort of thinking, “Who is this person? What is this weird website? Can I learn anything from here? HOW DO YOU FIND A FOUR-LEAF CLOVER!?”

What can I say? The internet has changed. Ten years ago I referenced discovering “Netflix Instant” and thinking it was “the greatest thing ever.” That’s because streaming on Netflix had JUST BECOME A THING. Which means that when I wrote on that self-same blog that I was going to “Netflix” a movie, I meant that I was going to send away for it in the mail and that it would come three days later on a partially-scratched disc that I’d put into my very heavy and very slow computer.

I also referenced reading a lot of the website Digg and playing on a long-defunct quiz show-type poll website called BuzzDash. Things change.

If you are the fifth most likely type of person to be reading this — Sophie in the year 2029, at age 43, reminiscing about what it was to be 33 — hi. I am unsurprised you’re here. I hope you’re doing better these days. I have a lot of hope about the next ten years, and, although I will be long gone by the time you read this, I want you to know that I’m rooting for you.