Share Your World, Week 40

It’s time for Cee’s Share Your World again! With luck, I’ll be able to keep up with this challenge each Monday even in the busy upcoming months.

You’re given $500,000 dollars tax free (any currency), what do you spend it on?

20131128_122449 Let’s say, just for fun, that I’m not allowed to save any of it.

I’d split the first $100k between my family and friends who need it most. Another $100k goes to home care and pet care — look at that sweetie to your left and tell me he doesn’t deserve a shiny new dog bed. For my part, I want a couple new cat trees and a ridiculous glitter floor.

The next $100k goes to my partner, partly to spend on the students at the special needs school where they work. Hopefully there’ll be enough to take a few kids (plus their parents and caretakers) on a vacation they’d otherwise never get to experience.

I’ll keep $100k for traveling, new clothes, a new computer, and a couple of tattoos. With the last $100k, I’d start a charity to support creativity in local communities. There are so many stories out there waiting to be told through art, so many voices that go unheard, and I have to admit, I constantly daydream about being able to help lift them up and show them to the world.

What’s the finest education?

I wish we were taught compassion in school. Right now, it’s something you learn only through life experience — through hurting others, or getting hurt. It wouldn’t translate perfectly to the classroom, but I can’t envision anything negative coming from education on accepting and understanding others’ perspectives and ways of life.

What kind of art is your favorite? Why?

All art is beautiful, but writing is my favorite. As an anxious child, I liked that you could follow a set of rules to produce competent writing. As I grew older, it helped that I could write without any special materials — I still remember how much the supplies for my painting classes cost. Writing just meshes with me in a way other art forms don’t, even with practice.

Is there something that you memorized long ago and still remember?

In my freshman year of high school, I played a fairy in our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But I had a crush on the boy who played Lysander, and when I heard that the girl cast as Hermia was going through a family emergency, I memorized her lines overnight.

I became her understudy and stood in for her during almost every rehearsal. I’m still in awe of how quickly I managed to learn the part. Hermia’s actress showed up late to opening night. The director had a split second to decide whether she’d wait or send me in. She chose to wait.

I never did get my moment in the spotlight (or get to date Lysander), but I remember every line.

Take comfort: he no more shall see my face;
Lysander and myself will fly this place.

“Here’s to those who wish us well…”

IMAG0286 “And those who don’t can go to hell!”

That’s our family toast. I don’t know if it originated from my grandfather or if it predates him, but we never miss saying it at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner in his honor, although he’s been gone for over fifteen years now.

There are only five of us — mom, dad, two brothers, and me — but we’re an interesting mix.

Among the lot of us, we’ve got nine cats and one dog. We’ve got an extended family of high school friends, unknown birth parents, estranged parents, adoptive parents, partners, exes. Together, we’re Catholic, Lutheran, nondenominational, atheist, uncertain. We’re second-generation Italian, Czech, Floridian, New Jerseyan, one thirty-second Spanish, rural Tennesseean mutt. We’re de-facto music lovers, video game players, and Miami Dolphins fans. My parents are short, my brothers are enormous, and I’m the petite one at 5’1″. Except for my blonde mom, we’ve got curly dark hair. We tan easily, and we prefer dark clothes. In group photos, we tend to resemble a Mafia family, and I’m pretty sure none of us are especially ashamed.

We don’t drink underage, but except for my straight-edge kid brother, we are drinkers. My parents are beer drinkers, I’m a gin drinker, and we all go for the occasional glass of red wine, as per Italian heritage law. We don’t shy away from strong words, hence the toast above.

We have weird holiday celebrations that are holdovers from customs and religions no one really remembers or understands: honey crosses on the forehead, strong sauerkraut soup, chickpeas tossed on the floor for the angels to pick up. (Or for the dog to eat. He’s basically a little angel, isn’t he?)

I don’t always understand my family, and they don’t always understand me. But at the end of the day, you can’t strip me of my family identity any more than I can manage to escape it.

(And, don’t tell them I said this, but I’m the only one who’s a half-decent cook.)

 And, okay, I’ll say it: I love them.

They can be hard to talk to, and hard to handle, but when I head over for a visit, it still feels like going home. It’s a place where I know the rules. I know where to find the snacks and drinks. I know when to sit down and shut up. I know I’m likely to hear a man’s voice burst into song, and I know it’ll sound damn good, because apparently in our family, the carry-a-tune gene is sexist.

So please, remind me of all this the next time I have to go see them. I’ll need all the help I can get.



(Content warning: this post contains descriptions of hoarding, anxiety, self-harm, and abuse.) 

My earliest memory is from when we were rich. I’m a toddler looking up in wonder at sky-high shelves piled with plush animals, pink Barbie furniture, Disney princess faces.

I think: if all that fell down on me, I’d drown.

I remember tiptoeing barefooted through the corridor in my grandparents’ house, shoulders narrowed, shying away from spiders suspended over the unpacked boxes that line the hall. At the end, I find my grandma using her kitchen shears to clip a red cardboard heart from an empty spaghetti box. She extends the heart to me; a gift. “It made me think of you.”

One night, after I’ve learned at school about stop drop and roll, I decide that I should keep my favorite things in one basket, so I can find them all fast in case of fire. As I hold up each toy and try to judge who makes the cut, it occurs to me that I can’t sleep in bed with any of them this way. I give up and lie in bed awake, trying not to think of flames.

Before we move, my mom asks me to sort through my toys and choose some to give away. This won’t be hard, I decide. I’m growing up, and I don’t play with lots anymore. Other, littler kids can love my old friends better. I toss aside a big bristly teddy I’ve never looked at twice. My mom picks him up and tells me about the distant aunt who gave him to me, about how excited and bursting with love she was when she heard I’d soon be born. When my mom walks away, I sheepishly move the teddy into the pile of toys to keep.

In the new house, I can’t explain why I now find myself tucking trash behind my mattress, in my nightstand. At school, after lunch, I throw scraps out in pairs so they won’t get lonely. My mom packs me juice in a flavor I don’t like, and though I try to push it on my friends, no one wants it. I cry when I throw it away, because the words little hug are written on the bottle. I just don’t want to hurt anyone.

My new dad comes out of my bedroom and looks at me. He says to my mom, “There’s something disgusting in the drawer. Tell her to clean it up.” I think about how he used to bring me gifts, and how maybe now he doesn’t because he knows I don’t take care of my things. I go in, heart pounding, and look in the drawer. He’s right. Why had I left it there?

I get older. I tie a too-small belt around my waist and tighten it. I tell myself I can only take it off when I’ve cleaned up my room. I buy a pack of razor blades and cut myself once for every thirty minutes I put off cleaning or homework. Carelessly, I drop a blade in my blanket and put my knee down on it. In the middle of the night, I wake my parents to tell them I think I need stitches. The next day, all the blades and scissors and safety razors are gone from my room, and mostly, I’m mad that someone went through my stuff without permission.

I am in my college apartment, where I live with my boyfriend. The sink overflows with dishes, the stove is coated in baked-on slime, and the fridge festers with mold. The carpet is gritty, and the bathroom has never been scrubbed. The closet is stacked waist-high with junk, his and mine, intertwined. He slams me against the wall in time with his words. I can hear the punctuation. “You. Lazy. Filthy. Whore.”

Outwardly, I cry and apologize. Inwardly, I agree.

After I leave him, my next partner has a calm talk with me in the car, about whether I can keep up with cleaning the cat box. I punch my thighs and slam myself into the door. I had one shot at starting over, and I fucked it up again.

I see a therapist. I tell her, “I think I’m a hoarder.”

“Hoarder?” She makes a face like she doesn’t believe me.

I recount to her the story of my grandma and the heart on the spaghetti box. I think how I might still have it somewhere. I tell her I’m not that bad anymore, but it’s still a struggle. I’ve never neglected my own pets, but before I throw out boxes from cat litter, food, flea meds, I kiss the cats printed on them goodbye.

She says my grandma may have taught me some bad habits, but she also taught me about love. I can’t bring myself to disagree.

I have my first panic attack, then my second, then third. The smoke detector goes off when the oven gets too hot, and I tremble for the rest of the day. The smoke detector runs out of batteries, and I keep snapping awake during the night, heart racing, sure I’ve heard the hiss of something, somewhere, going up in flames. I begin to wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to get the fire over with. I could start over one last time, in a new place. I know I’m just lazy. I could pull through; I could keep it clean.

I begin to drink every morning. It keeps me calm, and it helps me focus. After a few shots, I can clean a room without stopping. I don’t get distracted and end up across the house, in front of the computer, with a dirty dish still in my hand.

I see a doctor and I tell him this. I leave with a prescription, and I take my dose the next morning. I scoop the litter, do the dishes, scrub the kitchen counter. I mop the floors. I pull everything out of each closet and cabinet and rearrange it in ways that make sense. I put out the decorative baskets and pictures I bought after moving in, back when I was sure I’d finally buckle down and keep a place clean. I still have too many stuffed animals, but I put them neatly away. For the first time since childhood, I hang up my clothes.

Days later, it still works. Once I decide to get something done, I’m suddenly capable of doing it. I think, “I’m going to hang up my dress”, and I do. I see crumbs on the floor and it’s no big deal to wipe them up. I stroll through my clean house, fantasizing about telling my parents. I won’t, though. I don’t trust these pills long-term.

After a while, an uncomfortable feeling settles into my bones. I can’t find anything to put off, or to beat myself up about.

I open the linen closet. Here, I keep boxes of memories, holdovers from the early days that haven’t been lost or thrown out in fits of self-hatred or rage. There are more of these at my parents’ house. I know I have to deal with them eventually.

I choose a box and I rifle through it. I try to muster up the urge to handle it like I’ve handled every other cluttered corner of this house, and I’m surprised by how easy it’d be to sever my attachment to some of the stuff. There are little kids’ building blocks and decks of cards and sheets of yellowed stickers that I don’t even remember owning. This is how I’ve handled my hoard over the years: I get angry enough to discard it, or I put it away until I can pretend not to care.

At the bottom, I find something. It’s a yellow plush star with a smile face and ragged blue fabric stuck to the back. I remember clipping it off a pair of slippers I’d gotten for my birthday when I was nine, the same year I got caught with something disgusting in my drawer. I remember how I had begged not to be given toys anymore, so I wouldn’t feel obligated to hold onto them for my whole life. I remember trudging around in the slippers, loving them, fearing the day I’d wear them to tatters and have to throw them away.

I remember how a smiling moon once shone up from the toe of the other foot, opposite the star. I look through the box, and I can’t find it. I picture it buried in the dump, with insects nesting on its happy cloth face. I picture it falling into an incinerator.

I put the box away, but I keep the star out. I hold the stupid dirty thing to my chest, and I cry.

Hoarding disorder is a serious condition marked by excessive attachment to objects and/or animals. In my experience, it can be exacerbated by additional illnesses such as depression or ADHD. If you or someone you love may have a hoarding problem but can’t access medical or mental health services, you can start where I did and find support at Squalor Survivors and Stepping Out of Squalor.

“You’re ugly, but…”

Untitled “You have such a kind soul!”

I’m ten years old. I’m walking through the mall with my grandma. A lady stops us, flashes me an eager smile, and tells me that I’m ugly, but I have a kind soul.

She doesn’t come right out and put it in those words, you’re ugly. Instead, she says something like despite how you may look on the outside, but I’m not dumb. I know what she means.

She goes on chattering, waving her hands around, talking about the light shining from within me. My grandma is nodding politely along with her, indulging her, so I do the same. I know this stranger thinks she has paid me a compliment, but I can’t bring myself to take it that way.

I am ten years oldI still want to grow up to be a princess. Beauty is important to me. Even in the books I love to read, the Animorphs series and the Baby-Sitters Club, the protagonists are plain and unstylish at worst. I am fatter than the girl in Blubber. I’ve checked.

I would like to be plain. I would like to not be fat, I would like to not have a disability that contributes to my fatness. Every night I fall asleep praying that I will wake up living in some other, better body in some other, better world. I try my hardest not to picture a future where I will never be lovely and thin, but here in front of me is this stranger telling me that I’m doomed.

But it’s supposed to be okay, because I have a kind soul. (What ten year old cares about kind souls!?)

After a while, my grandma drags me away from the stranger’s side. She gives a poised, neutral nod and says, “Wasn’t that nice of her to say?”

I shrug. I go to the food court, and out of anxiety and shame, I order one kids’ meal and one adult meal and ask the cashier to hide them in the same bag.This isn’t the first time I’ve doubled up on food and it won’t be the last, although in another year, I’ll decide to take the matter of my body into my own hands, and I’ll stop eating all meals but dinner.

And in three years, when I’m finally approaching thinness, I’ll be at the butt end of another backhanded compliment here at the mall when a car packed with teenage boys passes me, all of them hanging out the windows and howling at me at the top of their lungs. That’s when I’ll discover that there’s no winning, there’s no correct body to have. I’ll wilt a little inside as my grandma attempts to handle the situation with the same adamant grace: “My, they certainly did like you, didn’t they?”

I try not to let this stuff stick with me, but it does, even now that I’m an adult who just isn’t interested in the pretty princess life anymore.

The stranger could have chosen to act like my favorite teacher, who encouraged me to be talkative and creative. I still remember how reacted when I turned up to talent show rehearsals in glittery silver sandals. He said, “Now that’s a pair of stage shoes if I ever saw one!”

The stranger could have chosen to act like the nicest nurse at the children’s hospital where I got my monthly checkups. When I had to have blood drawn, she held my hand and told me it was okay to feel afraid. Unlike so many others, she saw past my weight and height and treated me like the scared child I was.

The stranger could have chosen to act like my physical therapist, who complimented my determination, motivation, and accomplishments. Even though it was part of his job to help me stay in shape, he never commented either positively or negatively on my body. 

But instead, the stranger chose to underline my appearance, as if my other good qualities were only useful as a way to make up for how I looked. I’m sure it was an honest mistake on her part, but I felt like someone had pulled a mask off my face and gasped in horror at what they saw.

Sixteen years down the road, I’m more comfortable in my own skin. I can take a compliment without turning it over and over in my mind, looking for the dirty side. I can brush off strangers the way my grandma once did, can look down my nose at them even from five feet tall.

That ten year old, though? She isn’t gone. Her legs still tremble in fear when strangers approaches her. She still tries to reach for food neither of us really want to eat, and she still looks in the mirror and sees herself fat, frizzy-headed, big-nosed, and unacceptable.

This isn’t the fault of a single stranger, by any stretch. I don’t blame her. But I do wish that instead of adding to the chorus of negative voices, she’d have been one of the few people who helped teach me how to take care of a frightened inner child who can’t calm down and won’t go away.

As Many Olives As Possible, Please

UntitledWhen I was very young, I was lucky enough to have a pair of grandparents who wanted to show me the finer things in life (and who, for a while longer at least, could afford it).

I remember getting new flowery dresses and wearing them to church on Easter Sunday. I remember attending the local ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker every winter. We’d pile into their Cadillac, they’d play 1940s hits on cassette, and my grandpa would sing along as he drove, while my grandma let me sneak sprays of her Norell perfume and swipes of pale pink Estée Lauder lipstick from her purse. I loved all this, loved everything my mom had hated growing up. The whole family used to take one look at me and say, “I guess it skipped a generation.”

I’m no longer so keen on church or “proper” ladylike behavior. I tend to avoid makeup that comes in subtle shades, or that can’t be picked up at the drugstore. I do wish we still had that old black 1986 Cadillac in the family, but there’s one legacy from my grandparents that I’ve been able to hold onto with no trouble: my absolute adoration for dirty martinis.

My grandma rarely drank outside of fine restaurants, hotel bars, and functions that I probably shouldn’t have accompanied her to, given my age. But one way or another, I always ended up sitting beside her, swinging my short legs, while she ordered a martini. Dry, extra olives, always made with gin. When the drink arrived, she’d discreetly pluck out the plastic sword (why it was always a plastic sword, I don’t know) and hand me the olives, one by one.

So, that’s how I developed a taste for gin around age four. Later on, my first real experience with alcohol was a bottle of gin I “borrowed” from my grandma’s pantry. I mixed a little into a glass of cranberry juice and was so underwhelmed by the experience that I didn’t drink again for years, until I started dating an occasional drinker.

I began ordering martinis in restaurants for the nostalgia factor. I started with sweet, fruity ones, thinking they’d be better for a new drinker, but I couldn’t see the appeal. I tried saying “just a plain martini, please” and kept ending up with vodka and lemon. At last, I literally had to Google “martini with olives and gin” to figure out how to phrase my request, and even then, I ran into stumbling blocks.

Waiter: Would you like that on the rocks, or up?

Me: Up? What is up? *looks at the ceiling*

After drinking so many martinis that weren’t quite what I’d wanted, I was afraid that the real thing would be underwhelming, or even worse, undrinkable. As it turns out, while I may no longer agree with my grandparents’ standards of quality in other areas, I believe wholeheartedly that very good liquor makes for a very good drink.

I may not have grown up to be what my grandparents desired or expected, but I still toast them when I have my favorite drink. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes just being what I imagine my grandma envisioned: someone who dances slow, lets her partner lead, allows her long, painted nails tap out the beat of the music against the curve of her martini glass.

(I doubt my grandma quite pictured the rainbow glitter on my nails, or the transmasculine partner in whose arms my nonbinary self rests, but I’ll be a proper lady in my own way, thank you much.)