I used to be a woman who did things. I was a doer, a maker, a builder, and then I was a woman who stared at a wall. I’d become an abandoned construction site, in a constant state of disrepair. The hammers grew heavy. The cement cooled. The nails dulled and rusted brown. And then I woke up from staring at a wall and looked around and nothing felt familiar. I forgot the blueprint and all my plans. What was that building, that woman, supposed to be? For miles, all I could see was the semblance of something, a stack of bricks, a room incomplete. What was supposed to be here? I kept asking myself.
I put on my shirt and shoes and try to walk myself back to the woman I used to be. And watching myself get cut and bruised in the process. But I’m used to this, I think, passing time tending to my wounds.
How do I go back to building when the tools feel heavy in my hands?
How did I get here?
I look at pictures for clues. In 2002, I started an online literary magazine because none of the cool kids would publish my work. My writing was too raw, dark, and messy for print. I wasn’t cool enough, connected enough, or willing to kiss the right ass.
I’ve always been more of a kicker than a kisser.
The journal was beautiful, smart, and cultivated a following enough to get the attention of The New York Times, Poets & Writers, and The New Yorker. I was proud of the five years I devoted to the journal — how I built it on Moveable Type and then fought with the printer on proofs when I decided to launch an annual print edition.
I don’t tell people about the times I’d hurl 40-pound boxes up and down streets. I don’t tell people about manning a table at a book fair knowing all the cool kids in publishing hate you because you upset the queen bee. And I definitely don’t tell people that I used to get stone-drunk at book parties because the idea of talking to the judgy smart set was unimaginable sober. Never do I talk about the hours spent sad and alone.
In 2009, I decided to use my marketing skills to give back to the communities in which I grew up. I started a non-profit that offered a day of dignified shopping. I partnered with Healthy Families Successful Start in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn to reward women to offer women who graduated from parenting educational programs
Up until 2009, I was a builder. I launched things. I wrote and published my first book; I got interviewed by the Times and I always had a new hustle on the horizon.
Then I got a job that changed everything.
It would be easy to say that my life would’ve been different had I not taken a job at a social media agency. I’d still be living in New York, eating kale, baking muffins, blogging, and working in publishing. But regret is a dirty business, and who would have ever anticipated that those four years would be the most painful and exhilarating I’d ever know. That although I worked for an abusive sociopath I learned more about business and marketing in those four years than in the previous 10.
When I quit the job that had been slowly killing me in 2013, the last thing I wanted to do was build. I’d spent four years laying down brick and I managed to get demolished in the process.
In the five years since I lost my estranged mother to cancer, published a book about a sociopath who copes with the loss of her mother from cancer — a book I’d written before I learned of my mother’s illness and passing — which is chilling and heartbreaking all at once. I couldn’t read my first book because I’d written it when I was a kid and the world was binary and black and white. When she died, the world became devoid of color.
I don’t love her, but I miss her, and I’ll likely spend the rest of my life reconciling the two. For nearly 40 years I wrote my way to and away from her and then she was gone.
I moved across the country because New York had become a pale version of what it used to be and I was tired of living under the weight of all the history.
I don’t believe in psychics, but after my mother died I saw a psychic because I wanted answers. I sat there listening to the woman giving me my reading and wondered how much of it she lifted off the Internet until she told me the name of my mother’s favorite song and no one knows this. Only I know this.
I paused and said, does she know what she did to me? Does she get it? And the psychic said she didn’t know then because she was ill, but she knows now and she’s so sorry.
I put the phone down and howled. I only cry when I watch ASPCA commercials, but I was a demolition wreck. All I ever wanted was for her to say sorry. In life, she always had a reason, an excuse, but she was Trumpian in her refusal to admit fault. Someone had always forced her hand, made her do what she did.
Are you saying it wasn’t you who broke my fucking heart?
Instead of forgiveness, my mother asked me to forget, and that was the last time I spoke to her. I repeated what I had said in 1997: You make it impossible for me to love you.
Death takes it all, it robs you of yourself, and it’s only when you emerge from the mourning do you see life as you’ve been living it (or not).
I didn’t think it would take me three years to mourn her. I think of her still — that black hair, the parchment skin, the Kent 100s she smoked. She was fearless on the outside but it was only in the quiet dark you could see her fragility. In this way, you’re like her, my father told me once. Fearless. Fragile.
You can’t build from a fault. You need strength in the foundation — a commitment to cement, saw, brick, wood, hammer, and nail. You can’t build a house where the floor falls through or the roof gives way. And I say all of this because the woman I used to be was strong. Fearless. And the woman I am now is devastatingly fragile.
There exists no balance, only binary.
So here I am, laying brick. Finding beauty in the things we so casually lose. Closing my eyes and trying to remember a child’s hand threaded to her mother’s like a cat’s cradle. And then opening them to see the clean horizon and all of its possibility. Even at 42. Even when the world tells you that by this time you’re cooked, mere inches away from your best-buy date.
We’re expiring. I know this. But it doesn’t stop me from picking up a hammer and building.