Last night, I went to a house party for a night of music and political activism. A guy running for governor of Colorado spoke to us and took our questions for a bit, and then afterwards a bunch of musicians performed, including some of my friends. The music was moving, the night was beautiful. And I was terrified most of the time.
I’ve been back from my road trip for over a month now, settled in to a decent place to live in Denver, working a decent job for a decent paycheck, reconnecting with people I know – re-entering society, in a way. After three months of uncertainty, rawness, self-reflection, adventure, and other inadequate descriptors, I’m again living a life that kind of looks like normal. But I don’t feel like normal.
I’m haunted by a past, both personal and ancestral, of numbness of emotion, repression of feeling, and for a while now I’ve been working on facing that down and overcoming it. Lately that work has been about accessing what Brene Brown would call vulnerability, or Pema Chodron would call tenderness – a kind of defenseless openness that helps us to be present and loving and creative and understanding and all the other things that I want to be more of. On the road trip I wanted to be more in touch with that place, and carry it back with me when the trip ended.
I’m reminded of this saying: be really fucking careful what you wish for. I did get in touch with that place, and I have carried it back with me. And now I have to live with it.
Take last night. At this party, there were one or two people who know me quite well, a few people who didn’t know me at all, and a bunch of people who know me a little bit. What was terrifying about it all was that the whole time I felt like my skin was falling off in chunks, and I was desperately grabbing at the pieces as they peeled off and trying to hold them in place, make it look like I had my shit together in front of these people that I really like being around, trying to pretend that every word, every note, every look, every movement of the air, isn’t scraping through the tattered skin straight into the nerve. And apart from the few times where I’ve been alone in the house, or in a park, or in the company of one of the few really trusted friends I have out here, that’s the way I’ve felt the entire time I’ve been back. Like in one of those dreams where you’re on stage or in front of a classroom and you realize you’re naked, except it’s not just that people can see your butt or wang or whatever, but down even deeper, into the viscera of your flesh, to even the brittle white skeleton. Like the “this is fine” dog:
Or like this poem, “Tuesday 9:00 AM”, by Denver Butson, which I love:
A man standing at the bus stop
reading the newspaper is on fire
Flames are peeking out
from beneath his collar and cuffs
His shoes have begun to melt
The woman next to him
wants to mention it to him
that he is burning
but she is drowning
Water is everywhere
in her mouth and ears
in her eyes
A stream of water runs
steadily from her blouse
Another woman stands at the bus stop
freezing to death
She tries to stand near the man
who is on fire
to try to melt the icicles
that have formed on her eyelashes
and on her nostrils
to stop her teeth long enough
from chattering to say something
to the woman who is drowning
but the woman who is freezing to death
has trouble moving
with blocks of ice on her feet
It takes the three some time
to board the bus
what with the flames
and water and ice
But when they finally climb the stairs
and take their seats
the driver doesn’t even notice
that none of them has paid
because he is tortured
by visions and is wondering
if the man who got off at the last stop
was really being mauled to death
by wild dogs.
So it feels terrifying and painful and raw. But weirdly, it doesn’t feel bad. This is, after all, what I wished for, and I’d rather have this than the numbness. It’s just that my previous experiences with vulnerability and tenderness have been more momentary and fleeting and joyful, like watching the sun rise over a mountain, looking into a lover’s eyes, reading a beautiful story. I suppose I expected it to feel like that all the time, or at least hoped it would. It’s easier to show to the world the feeling of joy at a sunrise than it is the feeling of reaching for a pan in the oven with bare hands, over and over again. I didn’t expect that, or expect that my new desires for tenderness and vulnerability would crash so hard against my old desires to appear likeable and easy-going and as if I have my shit all nice and together.
It’s exhausting trying to keep those tender and vulnerable places open. It’s also exhausting trying to hold my skin on to my body like everything’s fine. I realized last night that I don’t have the energy to do both. And that I’d rather feel raw and open and terrified and human than not feel at all. So fuck it. If my skin wants to keep falling off, I’m just going to let it go.