Dealing with Heartbreak: Then & Now

The Poop Emoji

When I was in high school I got my heart broken and I listened to Every Rose Has Its Thorn ad nausum for 3 days straight.

It was a dark time. Literally. I covered my walls in black satin and traded in soft white light bulbs for red floodlights. Total fire hazard, but who really cares when your roses are covered in thorns.

Just after college, I had my heart broken again, and I went out and bought a book of poetry by Jewel (yeah, that one). She writes a bit like a female Bukowski. I bought it because I wanted to be bitter but I didn’t want to hate women. Progress, I guess.

Today, at 46, I woke up to the smell and sight of dog shit covering my living room. The carpeted living room. The entire carpeted living room. Matted down paw prints, piles, smeared, dabs here and there. You could say my heart was broken.

But this time, I opted to put on Spearhead, grabbed the Folex, some rubber gloves, paper towels, and went to work. (He actually has an anthem for cleaning up shit, if you ever need it. It’s called “Bad shit happens, but good shit happens too.” I had to smile when it came on.)

So there I was, middle-aged, cleaning shit for 2 hours.

But smiling. And, truth be told, dancing on my tippy toes on the scattered sheets of paper towels by the end.

I suppose that’s part of growing up: taking care of your heart. Deciding not to wallow in shit, and, instead, dancing your way out of it.


My Anxiety

It took a while, but it came.

I thought I was immune, but no one is.

There is a tree with thick, knuckly roots driving into the soft green earth. Its branches do all sorts of interesting things: hold nests and tire swings, block the hot sun, reach into other trees, click against one another, give wood, provide hollows, cast shadows.

One branch, in particular, has taken a risk and grown longer than the others, shot out perpendicular from the trunk. Dangling from its skinniest part, the part before the branch becomes too weak to hold anything, is a hornet’s nest.

The hornets buzz. They’ve always buzzed. They never stop buzzing.

It’s the hornets of which I’m most proud. And for that alone, I’m embarrassed. Too much care about the hornets, what they’re doing in there and when they’ll come out.

I realize this is the source of everything – the good and the bad: my worry that the hornets will stop coming out. That they will stop moving altogether. It makes my branches grow, my trunk thick, builds homes for other things to live.

My biggest fear, as I’ve discovered, the thing that makes me lose sleep, that keeps me from being present with all of this life living in and around me, is that the nest will seal, will snap from the branch, will fall to the ground, and the hornets, plump with purpose, finally ready to run their arcs around the world, will never find their way out.


Let The Thing Reveal Itself

Woman wearing teal dress sitting on chair talking to man

We talk big when we’re trying to convince someone of something. Big words, long sentences. Multiple paragraphs.

The other day, I was talking with a friend of a friend about something important — national politics or smog or something. We were both taking turns making our double-jointed arguments, from our patio chairs spaced 6 feet apart. Then, his school-age son pulled up a blanket and sat down near us with his arms full of miniature cars.

I didn’t acknowledge the little guy because I didn’t want to shoo him away with my “adultness,” but I did simplify my speech to allow him access to the conversation should he want to jump in. We kept on the same topic; I still made the same points but with one-syllable words instead of three. I cut out the commas and opted for periods. I spoke from the heart. All heart, all feeling, a language kids understood.

Well the kid never jumped in.

But the conversation took off. We went deep, real deep. It was the best part of the talk, hands down. We got somewhere neither of us was expecting to go.

This reminds me of career coaching: often the simplest comments are the most profound as if all of those big scribbly words merely shroud the thing you’re trying to see. The more you talk, the more you scribble, the more you cover.

There’s a basic thing in there trying to reveal itself. Stop scribbling.

Us adults, in all our sophisticated self-reflection and pontification, we choose to cover up the truth, not dig it out. We don’t work at the base level, even though that’s the level of breakthrough, the way to make everything come down so you can build it up again.

When it comes to changing minds and changing lives, when you’re hoping to go deeper than a win and truly influence someone’s view of the world, and possibly your own, intellect falls short.

Put away your best argument, keep the scribbles off the truth, and be brave enough to let the thing reveal itself.


Our Third Favorite Secret

Next to death and sex, work is the world’s best-kept secret.

We don’t talk about our work, not in any deep and thorough way, at least. Yet work makes up the majority of our lives, 8 out of 16 waking hours, 5 out of 7 days.

What would happen if we changed that? If we let our friends and lovers geek out about the projects they’re working on: the relationship they saved, the database they just installed, the strategy they came up with?

What would happen if we opened that box, if we pried the dam?

I’ll tell you. We’d gush all over each other.

Perhaps we’d be sheepish or cynical at first, but in time, we’d get going and we’d learn to enjoy it. We’d learn something new about each other, something as bright and red as a ruby, as crucial to our existence as a heartbeat.

And, after we finish these conversations, no matter how silly they feel coming out and going down, we’d all be a little bit closer.

Take it from someone who has these talks daily. It’s our most unappreciated magic: sharing what we do, well past the complaining, the venting, and the elevator pitches, deep into tasks we can do in our sleep. These little bits of action define us more than our mantras. They are the threads in our clothes, the lines on our hands.

This is not about whether you like your job or not. It’s about the cumulative impact of repetition, how the tide, without permission, shapes the continents.

We cannot know each other or stand with each other, without knowing the forces that have created us.


We Were There

When the ones after us come along and regard what we’ve created, it will be almost mythical, indeed legendary, the story we tell them.

We will say we were there. And they will know from the look in our eyes and the tiredness in our throats that we’re telling the truth.

When we started, we didn’t know the end. I guess that’s what made us courageous.

Us, walking up to doors and pounding them with fists,
Us, holding hands with strangers and digesting uncomfortable words.
Us, crossing the line and grabbing back the microphone.
Us, loving the ones on the other side enough to make a space for them, like a grieving mother who keeps an empty room.

And when they ask — the next ones, that is — when they ask, the answer will be obvious but we’ll tell them anyway.

When the Gods stepped in.

When the ground shook and the earth rumbled because we made it rumble. It was our feet and our hands and all that pounding that made the rock deep underneath turn to liquid, gurgle up, and spray out of a thousand century-old holes, a molten spray melting the buildings and the roadways, burning new paths straight through mountains.

And as the firey tidal wave arched over us — little Us — we watched half out of fear and half out of awe as this thing happened, as the curl came down and the layers spread and cooled, expanding the shore, connecting the continents, filling the holes, rewarding us with new places to walk, to live, and to love.

More space, finally, enough space.


The House

maroon brick surface

A man looked out his window and saw a woman in her yard, pulling her house apart. He noticed her doing this every day, sometimes just a single brick took all afternoon. She was using a spoon.

He couldn’t stay away for very long.

“Why are you destroying your house?” he asked.

“My daughter is having nightmares.”

“Seems a little extreme, don’t you think?” He kicked at the pile of bricks, hands in his pockets.

“I’ve tried everything else.”

“Are you sure?” He meant well. He meant to be helpful. “What are you going to do once it’s gone? How are you going to rebuild it? What if it doesn’t stay together?”

The woman, still crouched, put down her spoon and brushed the mortar from the tops of her shoes. She stood up, wiping her brow with her forearm.

She was shorter than he but spoke with a confidence he’d never seen before.

“We’ve tried therapists, spiritualists, interior designers, new wallpaper, we rearranged the furniture, we’ve read books, tried hypnosis, changed our diet, fasted, knocked down walls and put them back up. I’ve brought in experts, stayed up with her, slept beside her, loved her with all the love I have, emptied myself to fill her up. There’s nothing left to do.”

She got back into her crouch, picked up her spoon, and spoke into the wall. “Sometimes you know what’s right because what you’ve seen your whole life is wrong.”

He looked up at the 3-story house. Thousands of bricks, beautiful craftsmanship, such great architecture. He felt bad for her.

“But you’re never going to finish,” he pointed out.

She stopped, looked back over her shoulder. The sun blazed from behind the man making him almost invisible to her. She looked at his concerned face, then to his empty hands, his immaculate shoes.

“I don’t care if I finish,” she said. “The nightmares are already starting to go away.”


When The Cops Aren’t There

An open door allowing light to shine into a dark room.

I had a dream where I got robbed.

It was a clever plan. I was the only one home and they lured me into the driveway, then one of them went into the house and took stuff. It seemed to happen so quickly.

They left with only my food – frozen bags of things, some fruit, one of them took the time to cut up an apple and eat it, which seemed strange, but then again, isn’t that always what thieves are stealing: something on the way to sustenance? They usually don’t take a TV so they can watch it.

Where was I… Oh yeah, they left.

I ran out of the house looking for cops but I couldn’t find any. Instead, there were these people, all wearing the same shirts. They looked official, but they looked like me too. I tapped one on the shoulder and they took me into an office.

What was weird was, as I told my story of being robbed, they seemed to have empathy for the thieves. They kept trying to tell me about their motivation, what was inside of them, why they would do such a thing. It made me angry (what about my pain!) but then I realized my fear was dissolving.

Robbed by a human, I thought. Not a monster. Somehow that was easier to take.

It was comforting to see people moving around in that office, looking at computers, carrying paper. I knew they were working to help me. I knew they wanted to find the people who robbed me, but not just for me, for the people who robbed me, too.

I started to get up and then the regular-looking person sitting across form me, unadorned, without a hero’s utility belt nor a kevlar vest, put up a gentle hand.

“Sit,” he said. “What about you? How are you doing?”

I told him about how I’d wished I’d done something different, that I was naive, stupid, careless, that I couldn’t protect my family, that I was thinking of getting a gun.

“I did everything wrong,” I said, staring at the ground.

“No,” he said. “You did everything right. You’re here now. You’re going back to your family. And they’re going back to theirs. We’ll find them.”

“I should have never believed them,” I said, looking at the ground.

He leaned in, put his hand on my hand, and it wasn’t until that moment that I realized he had been listening to me this whole time.

“What I’m about to tell you might sound weird,” he said. “But it’s the truth: we’d be a lot worse off, all of us, everyone of us — you, me, them — if you didn’t believe them in the first place.”


Dreams of Others

Crowd of protesters holding signs
Photo by Life Matters on Pexels

I see you:

Standing there with the sign
Walking for miles
Shouting ’til you’re hoarse
Reading books
Watching documentaries
Calling people out
Giving yourself up
Wondering, constantly wondering, what more can I do?

You’ve acquired a new anxiety.
You’re standing in someone else’s pain.
You’re up at night, up early in the morning, earlier than usual.
You need more hours now because the world needs you.

It’s not like you’re looking for recognition but every once in a while, you ask yourself why are you doing this? Or, can you keep doing this? Or, is this really what you think it is?

And you feel a bit guilty for asking, for not knowing, for having the need to know. You feel guilty for enjoying the softness of your bed at night because so many for so long went without softness, were only fed in order to be owned, were instructed to walk on broken glass and not bleed.

So, you think to yourself, my blisters don’t matter, my hoarse voice don’t matter. My tired shoulders don’t matter, my new anxiety….


I have something for you.

Deep below the stillness, there is a great vibration. The plates are shifting, thunderous like a million beating hearts thumping at the exact same time. It is a rumbling approval from the earth, from the rocks and the bones that were here the whole time.

Believe it. This is your reward.

Heads of long ago are turning toward you. They are raising their eyebrows, sucking in their cheeks for the first time since they were lost — the great thinkers, the great workers, there in black and white, with bent backs carrying heavy loads, squinting tired eyes, and craning tired necks. “Really?” They’re nudging each other to look, restless bony elbows into bony rib cages. They can’t believe it but they’re letting themselves smile. They’re dropping shovels and pens, they’re pulling babies into their chests. They’re mouthing the words they’d always hoped to say. It’s happening…”

An unrest, an awakening, a clumsy, angry scribble on our timeline that is already being seen as a milestone.

But for now, the dust and the heat. The voices and the hands up. The walking and the screaming. And you, beautiful you, fighting, dreaming, wondering, tired…

You can see it now: the dreams of others coming up through the ground, inhaled by a new set of warriors, by your beautiful mouth, taking in the new language and the new pain, harsh in the throat, jagged going down into the lungs and stomach.

It’s hard to see all the way through. It’s hard to keep walking.

We know, the voices whisper, so pained, so patient, they’ve been allowed to reach across time and space, to send their dreams through the layers of the earth.

We know.


Acting Out

grayscale photo of police riot team on pedestrian lane

Riots are not the problem.

In Family Therapy, the person who acts out — the cheating husband, the depressed wife, the son who threw a brick through the neighbor’s car window — this person is not to be vilified, not to be punished. Quite the opposite, actually.

If there is a real commitment to fixing the problem, to closing the wound, the one who acts out is to be celebrated, indeed appreciated for bringing the deep-seated problems of the family to the surface, where they can finally be addressed.

It is the entire family that is sick. A therapist knows this, which is why they can sit with their hands folded in their laps and not show a look of disgust at the mention of a broken window. They don’t have what they need yet. Not even close.

Instead of launching into lecturing, they keep looking.

Are they wrong? Are they being soft?

Imagine watching a movie where the husband beats the wife for being depressed. You wouldn’t root for that guy.

Yet, when the police come in with batons and tear gas, there is applause. When the president unleashes the dogs, he is commended, for being strong, for standing up to the “children” in the streets.

Children. Ironic.

Because the ones at the podiums, the ones with the batons, they’ve stopped searching for answers. They’re not interested in, or capable of, repair.

So they, themselves, become children, gathering up their toys and pulling them in close, pointing to their rules and hitting back harder, claiming with bellowing voices and fists raised that they’re ending the violence when, in fact, they’re giving birth to it.

And to stop the children from acting out (it doesn’t matter which children you think I’m referring to), to stop the cycle of violence, you have to keep looking, you have to rewind past the raised batons, past the broken windows, way back before the streets filled, back before the breath was lost.

If you want to solve the problem, you have to believe that you don’t have the answer yet, and you have to get down on one knee, at eye level, with humility, with the belief that you’re both hurting from the same thing, and you have to speak only to show that you’re listening.

And then you have to listen.


Why Our Cities Are Burning

[Certain Voices Aren’t Being Heard. Here’s one of them. Please listen.]

I hear on the news that a cop station went up in flames and I’m like yeah. Then I feel bad about cheering for that shit, but if you’re cheering at all right now, no matter what side you’re on, you’re cheering for that kind of shit. Seems like we can’t get away from it, this loop we’re in.

Stop, no, stop no, leave me alone, you’re resisting, stop, no, STOP, please, no, kill, silence, oops, tears, rage, but he said oops, NO, violence, rage, violence, disgust, look, look, kill, he was one of ours, kill, kill, reframe, circulate, sigh, back inside, nothing to see here, back away, no, stop, no, no, NO…

Riots seem like the worst thing from the safe side of the TV but they’re not such a bad deal when you’re in the streets, when your life is nearly lost every day, when you’re expecting murder to happen around you, from the good guys, from the bad guys.

It wears you out, getting asked to be softly and gently murdered every time you go outside.

Besides, there is always a riot on the inside. Time people knew. Time to turn the inside out and let the fire burn down something else for a change.

And, no, I don’t fucking care what I burn because no one cares that I’ve been burning my whole life so why should I care what my hands are doing, that I’m throwing a stone, that I’m breaking a window, that I’m dropping a match.

Every day I’m told this city ain’t mine. This glass, this road, this sidewalk. It always seems to be someone else’s. So why should I think anything different now.

Nothing’s mine, not even this goddamn match, not even this hate. These things were given to me as gifts, gifts I didn’t ask for, passed down like a heavy cabinet I never wanted, carted from house to house from city to city.

So now I’m giving it back. I’m sick of crowding my own fucking house with this stuff. I’m giving it back and I don’t care what you do with it. I hope it’s a burden. I hope I’m a burden. That’s all I can hope for now: that you feel my weight, that you hate the fire as much as I do, that maybe it gets inside you too and you can’t get away from it, and you have to live with it and we can finally be the same.

Cuz maybe then you’ll do something, or just burn, like me.