22 May 2018

Short Thoughts on Hair Colors

This time last year my dad had been dead for two months, it never stopped raining and all I did was cry. My body physically ached from sun up to sun down and had so much rage that I can't believe I didn't telekinetically smash buildings together. I took the red line home every day from the Wrigley building and I'd grip the seat thinking: don't cry don't cry don't cry, but I always lost.

The first time I heard an ambulance back out in the rainy world, I was so triggered I jumped off the train at the first stop I could and sank against a railing, sobbing into my hands. Someone even touched my shoulder to ask if I needed help and I wanted to turn around and cry in their arms, someone's arms, anyone's arms. I was so delicate, a girl made of the thinnest glass. One wrong move and I would surely shatter.

A receptionist from work gave me the phone number for a grief center in Rogers Park and I called the first afternoon I could to interview for a spot in a group. I paced my living room, my hand on my chest, hyperventilating while I told the story of my life derailed. Pink spots rose along the ridges of my fingers and crept across my face.

When I finished, she quietly sighed.
"Lisa, I think that you might be a little too raw for a group right now. I think you should focus on individual therapy and then in 6 months we can reevaluate."

I sat down on the floor, too broken even for a group.
"Please tell me this ends," I moaned into the phone.
"It ends," she said. "And you will be so much stronger."
"But what is strength even worth?" I cried back. Strength was a small and stupid thing to me then. A word I had no connection to. A meaningless trait.
"My dad died when I was your age," she told me. "And I promise you, you will much more resilient when you get to the other side."
"How do I get there though?" I ask.
"Start seeing a therapist," she said. "Put in the work now."

So I did.


I started to dye my hair red almost immediately. It was a long process, but it was something for me to do. Every week I applied a different paste and my bathroom filled with eye-burning chemicals, but once the ink had washed out, I looked different. A new version of myself. And each time I could think: maybe this girl can deal. Maybe she'll be the one to get through a day at work, maybe she'll fix her marriage, maybe she'll be able to climb the mountain, swim the sea. Maybe she'll figure it out.

It never felt right though. Some days it looked so bright, so different than it was supposed to, that I would catch myself in the mirror and think you look like a girl whose dad has died. I looked wrong with red hair, but I was too sad to put it back to normal. Too sad to do much at all. 


I read Macbeth. I read Hamlet. I finish Harry Potter. I read the good parts of The Odyssey. I felt lucky that I am a reader of books because books never actually change, only you do. And if you read enough books, you have plenty of homes to return to. You are always safe somewhere. 


The thing with grief, with my grief, is that mostly I actually am very strong and I am okay, but then the wind goes the wrong direction and suddenly I am not and I really want to crumble, on the street, on the sidewalk, but I can't because I already told you I was doing fine and the truth is people don't want you going back on something like that. So after a while you are just walking on your own and no one is around to hold your hand or see you stumble and you need to figure out how to live with that. I wouldn't even know how to tell you how to believe me. 


After a year I look in the mirror and my hair is nice and long and wavy and perfectly orange, the color I had wanted this whole time. Everyone has been telling me it looks good and I think that it does too, but I am finally done.

I feel better.

My friend and I use our lunch break to walk to Walgreen and buy dark brown box dye and I tell Ben I'm going to do it when he gets home. He stands at the edge of the bathroom drinking a glass of water as he watches me prepare myself.
"I'm here for moral support and to get the back," he joked, referencing the years of me sitting on the edges of sinks with half my hair dyed only to scream to him from the other room to come and help.

But I didn't need help this time because I am different now. I mixed the chemicals in the bottles, put on the plastic gloves and stared at myself dead in the mirror. I had made my long hair red and now I would turn it back to brown. I am not the same as I once was. I am so much braver now.

06 March 2018

The Year of My Life

In my second-to-last therapy session with the woman who saw me through all my stages of grief, I found myself brimming with a fierce optimism and hope as I recapped where I had been that week. My dad's one year teeters two weeks away, but I couldn't stop telling her, "I get it now. I get what everyone who had grieved before me kept trying to say. There is another side. I can see it, I am closer to it now than ever before." I had spent an entire year clearing the branches to find a trail, clear as the eye could see and I was ready to start hiking it.

My therapist folded her hands and told me that I had put in the hard work and that I deserved to feel centered. From the moment my dad died, I knew I needed to take on the pain head-on and I got myself into therapy within weeks. It was so hard for so many, many months. Everything hurt. Talking about it hurt. Realizing things hurt. I was in more pain than I could handle, but I did handle it.

We use lots of ocean metaphors, but it always works. I'm tired of them, but they are the best ones.

As we wrapped up our session, I remembered a dark moment that I had way back in the beginning. 

I was telling her that when I first found her facility, I spoke to her colleague who was running a grief group at the time. I remember talking to her on the phone from the living room of my apartment encapsulated with rain and crying so hard I almost hyperventilated. 

It must have been only a week or two after. I told my therapist’s coworker that my family was destroyed; I begged for an answer, clean and clear: tell me what to do to feel better. There was a very long pause and I almost thought I heard her choking back. 

“I can tell you I lost my dad when I was your age,” she said over the telephone wires. “And I promise there is another side to this.” I sobbed and sobbed. “You aren’t ready to do a group yet,” she told me gently. “Do individual and we can talk in six months.” 

I cry and cry, so hard like a kid. “But what HAPPENS” I moan into the phone. The pause is a valley. 

“You’ll be more resilient,” is all she said. 

My chest heaves, she confirmed my appointment with my therapist and we hung up. I hold my hand up to the window and feel like there is no end to the valley of sadness I am trudging through and the resilience she speaks of is the biblical flood many believe but I know is geologically impossible. But yet she said it. So maybe. Maybe. 

I cling to the maybe for what seems like years but is actually months. I am now 28, but more like 98 and I know it all. I am the flood. 

I practice lent because it feels like the right thing to do. 

It feels like something that will keep me accountable, something I can believe in. A higher power becomes more and more into focus and my daily prayers, my daily religious/astrological/philosophical conversations with anyone and everyone increases. I don't feel so anxious anymore, I don't feel the need to explain things. All my emotions are rooted, planted. What was once spinning wildly through space is now in the dirt, spreading calmly through the ground. 

I am okay, I am okay. 

I start talking about God with Ben. He tells me he loves my ideas, but urges me to use another word. 

"God just has so much to it," he says finally. "You're talking about such great stuff. Don't associate it with that word." 

"I think that is the word I want to use," I tell him back. "It's not anyone else's God, it's my own God."

My strength. All my powers. It remains hard to describe, but like the glowing ball of white-hot rage I used to feel, there is peace. I didn't need to defend anything.

A month after my dad died, Ben and I took a train to New Orleans and it was terrible. 

I thought our marriage was over, I thought my mom was gone for good, I thought I would never feel safe in the world again. I did not want to go, but I worked it into my head that survival meant never saying no and that I would be stronger for going. That saying no would hold my head underwater for that final, fatal second. I could not. 

Many things happened on that trip and though the changes that ultimaltley occured happened after, all moments reached their breaking point. I remember that trip as a dark acid-trip of screaming multi-colored streets, drunks with their arms clownishly outstretched and a moment where I almost ran right into the arms of an Evangelical Christian group promising to save my soul on Bourbon St. 

On our way back home, quiet and dull, our flight experience turbulence like I have never felt before. Drinks were not served, lights were turned off and a chilling silence overtook the passengers as the plane rocked and dropped angrily through stormy clouds. I began to actually panic and think, maybe this is it. Maybe I could die. 

I thought of everything my life wasn't and all the ways I wasn't good enough, all the ways I had let people down. All the ways I had failed my marriage, my father, myself. How so, so much of my life was genuinely over, that this really had ripped through me, had broken me. I could reverse time and stop my dad's crash, I couldn't tell him everything I had always wanted to say. The good things and the bad. I couldn't have a second chance to see him or have him see me. I couldn't do a thing but sit in a seat and breathe. 

Salvation was nowhere and nothing, the answer to my suffering was in myself. The only person who could give me what I needed, who could open the door to peace, was me. I would be BETTER. I would be STRONGER, KINDER, SMARTER. I would live through this turbulence, I would live through the difficulty in my marriage, I would live my life. I would fear nothing but the concept of fear itself. I was the only person I needed. 

The plane landed and everyone cheered. I walked off calmly and threw up in the closest bathroom, too sick to even close the door behind me. But the next morning when I woke up, shaken inside and out, I finally felt awake. I was still a fraction of myself, paranoid of car crashes and memories of things I never said, but I went through all the motions with my eyes open. I wept many times between that morning and this one, but it was no longer an endless road of grief. I had named it, I had seen there was an ended. 

I switched paths and I started to walk like I was thunder. 

09 January 2018

Serial Recap: 4 Years Later

Almost four years ago I read about a This American Life spin-off called Serial that was boldly going where no podcast had ever gone before: talking about a murder in-depth. I was deep in my last winter in Moscow and had been relying on audio books to keep me going as I travelled back and forth through the icy, painted towers of my Russian city with my ripped English books, my eyes watching the Ruble teetering on the edge of an economic crash. I devoured books. I read while zipping on the metro a mile under the city and in the backs of tiny buses and plugged in my headphones as I jumped over ice patches. Everything blended together. All I wanted were stories.

And this consumed me. I got everyone I knew to listen to it, America and Russia. On Friday nights when my expat friends and I met at the 2-for-1 bars we frequented, the conversation always began with Serial and ended on Sunday morning with Serial. Everyone had opinions. There were clues everywhere and we hung on Sarah Koening's every word. Each episode that came out was like ripping into a new present. I don't know if I've ever had such a proper storytelling experience before.

I even wrote about it to you guys! I think to date this post had the most discussion in the comments.

Whatever, you all remember. It was awesome. A great time to be alive.

Which brings me to now. Every year when the air in Chicago gets this tight and the moisture in my hands evaporates and when I walk so fast I feel like I can't breathe because the cold has taken my lungs away I am transported to Moscow and I listen to old playlists, read old books and listen to this podcast.

And the smell of cigarettes in cold. But I don't smoke those anymore.

So I re-listen. Again and again. But my conclusion about it all came to a place last year and I think I'm done thinking about it. This is all very controversial, but I'll put it out there and please feel free to disagree because this is my favorite thing to talk about.

But I think he did it. I think he totally did it.

And I have thought lots of things. Adnan has big, cow-like brown eyes. He is articulate and polite. He doesn't like to interrupt. He's so sensitive to how he comes across. He wasn't even upset that they broke up. He was so, so well liked. How could I not wish it wasn't him? It's impossible. 

So I, like you, like Sarah, like Rabia, thought no way. Jay is the weird one. Or that guy who found her in the woods. Or someone else. A serial killer. That serial killer who was around. Or Don. 

But then I re-listened. Then I had my million conversations which started in Moscow and ended 5 minutes ago in the break room of my office with a coworker who saw my instagram post. And I listened to Rabia's Undisclosed. Well, half of it because it's kind of un-listenable. But then I listened to Serial again. And then I came to the conclusion that despite all these earnest tellers of his story, he just did it. 

*Full disclosure: I sympathize with this case and the people involved. I also believe in a high burden of proof and do not think he should necessarily be in jail. But I would also not want to be in a room with him. But he technically shouldn't be in jail.*

I think he did it because, simply, that is the story that adds up the most. It's hard to believe it because the story is told by Sarah who wants to believe it's not him, who has been fed this story by someone who did not believe it was him, because virtually everyone involved said how great he was. Because Hae was unable to capture in her diary the clues that her boyfriend was a killer. Because his teacher's didn't see it. Because his lawyer was really sick. But there aren't arrows, things don't happen in a straight line.

But he was there, shotty cell phone tower technology or not. He was driving around Baltimore, he was with Jay (the phone call from Adnan's Philly girlfriend), he did have a reason. Not a great reason, but who does have a great reason for murder?

And Jay knew where her car was. 

Sarah really wanted Adnan to be innocent and you can hear it if you listen back. She is so excited for every piece of evidence and she even admits to sounding like she needs a Xanax (compare her voice to old This American Life episodes or Serial Season 2). She is chasing a story, but she can't find anything. Nothing adds up except what Jay says. Jay knows things and while they aren't perfect, they are facts. He tells the best story: his friend killed his girlfriend because he thought he was a gangster and called his weird friend and they buried her body and never talked about it again. It was surreal and cold. Something that happened.

And the timeline is very short, the time between her leaving school and her not showing up to pick up her cousin. That is another fact. If she had been killed by a serial killer, wouldn't they have come for her in the night? Or when she was leaving work? If this had any bit of randomness to it, it would have creaked the story into another direction. But there is no break, she goes missing right after school. Something, someone got her quick. So something, someone, would have had to move quick. Like someone she knew. Like someone who was in the car with her. Like her ex-boyfriend. Like her close friend.

I don't really see how anything else adds up. I know a lot of people fall back on the information presented in Undisclosed, but Undisclosed is almost unfair to listen to. It feels even silly to write about because it is so profoundly biased and lacks any sort of self awareness. I will say there are some interesting details that make Jay look bad, make the cops look bad (but aren't all cops terrible at this sort of thing? Who has ever heard of the police handling a murder investigation well?), make the lawyers look bad. It's messy, but these things are messy.

So I guess that's all I've got. I think he did it because I think Jay knew enough things. And I think Jay sounded scared, I think he was scared. And all any of us are doing are just listening to the facts, listening to the way people tell them. Listening to their voices.

I think Adnan should have had some memories: school was cancelled the next day. Then his ex-girlfriend went missing. Those are memorable things. He said he didn't do it because he didn't want to go to jail. He says he can't remember anything because there are no good memories and some people are bad liars. I do believe some things are as simple as that.

I think a part of me gets it because I was an impulsive teenager. I think when you are that age you just don't think of the future; like everyone is sort of floating around. I read about teenagers doing terrible things all the time and I remember that. I remember feeling nothing was real. Living in a movie in my head. I believe it was a combination of that. Just that dark, dreamy teenage brain coming to fruition. Just something he did.

But hey, you can tell me what you think too. It's still a great story. 

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