There are only two ways not to cast a shadow: stand always in darkness, or learn to glow.
I’m at college now. It’s very nice. A community college, just nearby – I drive there every day, now that I have a license. I have four classes, one of which is independent study, meaning I just do problems on the computer the whole time, at my own pace.
I’m not making friends. On the third or fourth day, I just realized it was too much effort, and I couldn’t be bothered. I kind of expected to, but thinking about it, I don’t know why I would. I think I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be here – in California – at a normal school. I’ve forgotten what normal people are like. I’ve forgotten what my place is among them.
I don’t belong. I’d forgotten that. It used to be so normal, being on the outside. Not being alone – not exactly. I did that in sixth grade, and my mom says I was unhappy. I don’t remember, myself – I just remember when I finally got friends a year after, and how much fun it was. But even with them, I was always a little apart.
The first time my mom took me to a playground here – I was four, and I suppose we’d just moved here – I sat and watched the other kids play the entire time. She was quite bewildered. “Do you want to go play with them?” she asked me, and I shook my head. “Do you want to come back tomorrow?” she asked at the end, and I said yes. It was three days before I finally went to play with the other kids.
I’ve always liked that story. It fits me. I watch people, get their measure, before I join them. Throughout middle school, when I was officially uncool, I defined myself through my otherness. By the time I was fourteen I’d gotten past that and just didn’t care any more whether people liked me. I liked me, and that was enough.
Then came Denmark. Danish kids were so much nicer. The girls didn’t give me those quick up-and-down looks of disgust, or laugh behind my back, or snarl at me, or pretend to be nice to me like something from a bad teen movie. The boys didn’t egg each other on to see who could get me to lose my temper, or ask me to the dance as if it were a joke they couldn’t wait to start laughing at, or badger me five times a week about how I could possibly enjoy reading. My classmates didn’t seem to mind including me in their conversations or after-school parties. Once we’d gotten over meeting each other they didn’t exactly welcome me unless they were drunk, but they never looked at me as if they wished I’d go away. I was always welcome to join in the gossip or the jokes, if I wanted. I thought they were so sweet – I still remember them fondly.
But my friends – my mao friends…
I’ve always had a place where I belong – my family. I’ve spent most of my life thinking that was going to be it, with the possible exception of a future husband and kids of my own. I would read about the kind of friends you could do anything with, share anything with, spend all your time with and still want more, and I thought they were about as real as dragons. I still sort of believed in dragons, and maybe even in friends like this, but the older I got the more I recognized that neither was ever going to be part of my life.
The only friend I have here is Larissa, who is somehow as wonderful as them, but is still only one person. Besides, she can’t replace any of them, no more than they replace her. I’m not used to missing specific, individual people – I keep thinking I just need the company of a really good friend, but that’s not it. I need them. And now even Larissa’s gone back to her college, and I’m alone again.
In middle school there was always someone to poke fun at me. Even in sixth grade, when I had so few friends, there was always someone talking to me, even if they were unwelcome. Now there’s no one. I wander through school in silence, just watching, often too bored or preoccupied even to do that. I don’t care about making new friends, though I know I should. The kind of friendship I used to have isn’t good enough any more. I want good friends, true friends, but without all the hassle of finding these impossibly rare people and convincing them I’m worth keeping around.
This past week, I’ve been desperate to see them again. No one was ever available to skype, though, including myself. I’ve been wandering around for days in a cloud of grey, trying to convince myself that a few brief written chats were enough to keep me happy, but I’ve been reduced to simple pleasures like the feel of grass under my shoes. Nothing that lasts. I needed to see their faces.
Today I skyped with Malthe, very briefly, but he had a guest over and had to go. Then I talked to Tobias and Mikkel for a while, and it was lovely. It felt so good to see them, to hear them laugh. They’re hilarious together – they goof off and act silly, and it cracks me up more than it should, just because I’m so happy to see them.
I don’t mind talking about all the problems my friends have. I’d rather have their problems than their silence, and it’s not like I ever have any problems of my own. I can take theirs. But just for a little while, I needed a few minutes of happiness. I still do, maybe just for a few more days. Just a few more conversations where I can see them, and I’ll be fine again.
Everything I felt, I pushed inside, pushed away so it couldn’t be seen. From the outside I never changed, because everything that might change me I shoved inside. But there wasn’t enough room. Soon things were packed so closely together that the heat of them turned into a spark, and they started to burn.
There wasn’t room for a real fire – fire needs air, and I hadn’t been able to breathe for a long time. There was no room inside me for air. Everything just smoldered at the edges and slowly turned to ash. I felt it, but I didn’t understand, and I pushed my worry away like I did everything else. When I finally saw what was happening, it was too late. It had spread too far.
I tried to stop it – I tried everything I could. Nothing worked. I was turning to ash from the inside out. Turning to nothing. Losing myself.
Ash is not so very dense, and after a time there was more room inside me. I took a breath. With a single, violent whoosh, everything inside me caught fire.
By the time I put it out, I had lost nearly everything to the flames. All that I had left I used to shore up my outside, to keep myself from crumbling into dust.
That was when I sought help. I knew it was pointless – had always known – but I was so desperate. I went to the ones who were supposed to know me best and showed them how fragile I had become. They were angry, and annoyed. They told me I was just weak, and needed to get stronger. They told me should learn to deal with my problems myself.
Now I fall apart every night. I mix the tears with the ashes still inside me and use the paste they make to glue myself back together in the mornings. I don’t understand how no one can see the cracks.
Somewhere inside me I can feel the embers still burning. Every day more if me turns to ash. Every night I have more tears to use for glue.
I fear the day the fire burns out.
I fear the night I run out of tears.
I fear what I will have become.
This is not me. I was thinking of you when I wrote it. Is any of this you, or am I still wrong?
While I actually quite liked the movie The Day After Tomorrow, this meteorologist’s reaction to watching it left me giggling madly to myself in a vain effort not to wake the rest of the house with my ridiculously loud laughter.
This is how I feel about a lot of people right now.
This is how I’m afraid I’ll feel one day. I don’t yet, but someday I may.
I like helping people, especially people I care about. It makes me feel better, for a variety of reasons: My friends’ happiness makes me happy; it reassures me that I’m a good person; I no longer feel like I’m trapped in my castle, unable to feel the rest of the world, unable to understand or sympathize or make a difference. Every time I’m able to make someone smile when they’re sad, it erases a little of the frustrated rage at never being able to protect anyone. Every time I help someone keep going, even if I only make the tiniest difference, the world becomes brighter. The future becomes brighter. My hope for my friends becomes brighter.
It wears me down. Of course it does; how could it not? Life wears you down, one way or another. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. My life is filled with joy and ease and peace. I’m lucky. I have options for my future and love in my present. I have so much. I’ve had my issues, like everyone else, but I was lucky to have them all be inside my head. The world wasn’t actually attacking me; I just had to learn to deal with the harsh, dangerous, crazy thing we call living. I do recognize that my life is blessed – well near perfect – and I do know that I don’t have anything ‘real’ to complain about. I’m not trying to belittle myself, don’t worry. I’m just.. apologizing, sort of, for all the fuss I’ve made over little things. They felt big to me.
I’m grateful for all I have. Truly I am. And all my life, my parents have taught me that when you have something in any abundance, you have to give it to others. Good fortune isn’t meant to be jealously hoarded, but shared with as many people as you can reach. Finally I’m old enough to try, and I’m trying as hard as I can.
This song used to make me cry.
My mom doesn’t get it. Or maybe she does, but she can’t stand seeing me in pain any more than I can stand seeing it in my friends, and it makes it hard for her to see why I need to do what I’m trying to do. She doesn’t want me to give of myself so much that I don’t have enough left of me to live my own life. I agree with her, but I don’t want to stop giving of myself. I have to find the balance, yes, the lines I need to draw between my life and other people’s so that my life won’t drown; but I don’t want to draw lines that are too thick just because I don’t know yet what I’m doing. I’d rather draw lines that are too thin.
Pain is a lesson, if you let yourself learn it. It’s like falling down. When you’re little, you run around at top speed, tiny legs hurtling you forward as fast as you can go, until you fall down and skin your knee. Then you wail at the top of your lungs as if your whole world had ended, because you’re not used to the pain. Fast forward a few years: now when you fall and skin your knee, you get up and keep running. You’ve learned to cope with the pain.
Parents want to protect their children from every pain in the world. They all have different ideas on how to do that, but most of them are forced to recognize that sometimes you have to let your children fall down and get hurt. A lot of knowledge and wisdom can be passed on from parent to child, but some lessons need to be learned from falling down.
I’ve stopped telling my mom about my friends’ problems unless they’re so big that I need to get them out immediately. I’ve stopped telling my sister. I never told my dad much, but now I say even less. It’s an automatic response, I guess: if sharing what’s going through my head makes them and me more unhappy than happy, then stop. It feels like a very teenage thing to do, though I don’t know if it is. It leaves me with fewer people than ever to talk to.
Sometimes it feels like this song takes what I’m feeling and wraps it up, like thread wrapped round a bobbin, so it’s no longer messy and confusing and impossible to deal with.
I don’t want to be rescued. I don’t want to be saved. I’m not in any danger, and I’m not trapped. I’m not suffering any more than I choose to. I just want someone – someone who knows, who understands – to give me a hug. To hold me while I shake with held-back sobs, just for a little bit. Not give any advice, not tell me what I need to do or how far I can go or that I have to stop. Just hold me. I just want someone I can go to who believes I can do this, that I’m strong enough and smart enough to do this right, and who will give me a hug. That’s all I need right now. A hug.
Sometimes this song calms me.
The first time I heard this song was in the car. I was rather sleepy, and the only thought I had was “If I die young? How morbid.”
The second time I really listened, and I started thinking about death. I don’t want to die. I have so much left to do. I don’t know what comes next, so I don’t fear it – I’ll figure that out when I get there – but I fear leaving. I’m not ready.
The third time I heard this song I thought about the bit toward the end where she says, “Penny for your thoughts – oh no; I’ll sell them for a dollar. They’re worth so much more after I’m a goner.” A while ago Squiggle and I had a conversation about just that: she remarked on how unreasonable it really is that a person’s words carry so much more weight once they’re dead. If this person’s opinions matter so much to you, you should have been paying attention already. I realize that there are emotional reasons – guilt, sorrow, etc. – for taking a person’s words to heart when you suddenly lose them. But I resolved that if a person was important to me, I was going to listen to their advice while they were still around to give it. I hope I manage to stand by that.
Squiggle once told me that one of the saddest things about death, to her, was being forgotten. If she could, she said, she’d be immortal, so that none of her friends would ever be forgotten. At the time I answered that I don’t need to be remembered by my name, my face, or even my actions; I just want to leave my mark in people’s lives, make them happier somehow, teach them something. That way whenever they follow through on that lesson, whenever they pass it on to someone else, however long it lasts – I won’t be completely gone.
It’s still true. I still want to remain in the world through good deeds that people do for each other. If I get to have a legacy, I want that to be it.
But if I die now – if I die young – then all my friends, my family, everyone I know will move on with life without me. I won’t be forgotten, but I’ll be gone. I’ll fade away, until I’m just a story people tell their kids, and not even a very long story. I didn’t expect that to bother me, but it does. I don’t want to be gone. I haven’t had “just enough time”. I’m still here, I still have so much to do, to see, to learn. I don’t want to leave the people I love.
The fourth time I heard this song, I thought about how, when it comes to death (and most other things), my life has been pretty sheltered. Not very many people I know have died, and most of them I wasn’t too close to and hadn’t seen in a while anyway. None of them were young, either – except one.
I tell people he was my cousin, because it’s simpler, but he wasn’t actually. I have a friend in Brazil whom I’ve known pretty much my entire life. Her mother and mine are best friends; her grandparents and mine are best friends; our great-grandparents used to go to each other’s houses for tea. He was her cousin, her uncle’s son. My sister, my friend and I spent nearly every waking moment of every summer together, but I never played much with him. I didn’t really see him much at all. All I do remember is him laughing and beating me at everything. I was a year younger than he and very competitive, and if he weren’t there I’d have been the oldest. It infuriated me that he always won, and that he sometimes cheated to do so, and that he laughed at me; but that laughter is what I best remember, and the reason I did actually like him even when I was busy being righteously indignant. He was fun – he was hilarious – and he was, sort of, family.
I hadn’t seen him for two years when, one spring, he put a gun to his head and shot himself. I’ve tried to understand how that laughing face could be so tormented that he would do such a thing, but I can’t hold the two pictures in my head together. I guess two years is a long time.
I was fourteen. I cried so much. I don’t remember much of it – my mind has erased a lot of the memories – but I remember lying on the couch in the living room with the door closed, my face stuffed into a pillow as I bawled as silently as I possibly could, because if my parents heard they would only be upset and there was nothing they could do. This happened… quite a few times. It hurt so much, and for once I didn’t even have the words to say why it hurt. It just did, even though I barely knew him, even though he probably hadn’t even spared me a second thought since the last time we’d seen each other, even though of all the people he meant to hurt, I wasn’t even on the list.
I thought that was why he’d done it – to hurt his parents. He shot himself right after a fight with them. I have to admit I never thought about it too much beyond that – I think because I couldn’t comprehend a burden so great that death would sound like a good idea. Not for a fifteen-year-old kid. Not someone real, someone I knew, someone whose dad had played hide-and-seek with my mom when they were little. What could possibly be happening to him that was so awful?
To this day I don’t know. I doubt I ever will. At the time, though, the effect of all this was that I hated him, and that my vague disapproval of suicide turned to avid loathing. For many years, that was how things stood.
Now I have a friend whose life is so horrible that she has, multiple times, considered ending it. At first she told me that she had, in the past tense, wanted to kill herself. But slowly, before my very eyes, it got worse, and there was nothing I could do. She said once – in writing, to our whole group of friends – that she wanted to die, “and if you will hate me for that, then you are not good friends because this isn’t living. So why live?”
It felt like she’d stabbed me through the heart. Because in a way, she was absolutely right. Hating her would be selfish. I still don’t want her to die, but this forced me to think about why. I know why it’s important to me that she live. Why is it important to her?
She still has so much time. There’s still so much to do, and so much time to do it in. The world is huge, and life is long. If she ends her life now, her whole life will have been full of pain. If she waits – if she gives herself time, and fights on – she can fill it with joy. Maybe she’s right when she says that the wounds inside her will never go away, that the scars will never leave her. Maybe they won’t. But scars heal. She may never be the same, but that doesn’t mean she’ll never be happy.
That’s the best I can do. I don’t know enough to say why living is worth it for someone who doesn’t feel that way themselves. I’m not wise enough, I’m not old enough – I don’t know.
I used to worry that when someone walked out the door – my mother, my sister, my father, whoever – they might never come back. I didn’t have any logical reason for this worry, and I don’t have a Freudian excuse. I don’t remember when it started plaguing me, the terrible knowledge that anyone can die, at any moment in time. Life isn’t a story: people don’t just die at the most intense parts of the narration. Somewhere along the way this must have hit home for me, and suddenly every time my mother went out for groceries a spike of panic would lance through me.
I was never magically cured of this. I just learned to suppress the feeling, to tell myself that I was being silly. Besides, there’s nothing I can do. If a meteor falls on my mother while she’s buying broccoli, then that’ll be that. I learned to deal with my fear so well that I’d almost forgotten about it altogether.
When I moved back from Denmark, I was morbidly afraid that the plane would fall. Then I was morbidly afraid that Europe would be struck by the apocalypse and all my friends would die while I was over here. Then I calmed down, got over it, and moved on. Until Midnight said she wanted to kill herself. If she died, if I just turned off the computer one day and never heard from her again–
There were days when I nearly screamed with the panic, the frustration, the terror of knowing that I was too far away and there was nothing I could do and no matter what I said I wasn’t helping. There were days when I’d log off of facebook and curl up on the floor, shaking with fear and quiet sobs, praying that she’d still be there the next time I logged on. At one point she told Flip that she wanted to take a break from Mao, from us, from our group, and I nearly lost it. I’d been dreading for weeks that she might just not be there one day, and here she said she was going to do exactly that. She wouldn’t be dead, so it wouldn’t be permanent, but still I pretty much went crazy when I saw she’d deactivated her facebook account. She hadn’t even said goodbye! A short while later she reactivated it, and we had the biggest fight we’d ever had – the only real fight we’ve ever had. At the end of it she swore she wouldn’t ever do that to me, that she’d never just vanish like that.
She’s promised that she won’t kill herself. She’s said a few times that there were moments when she wanted to, when she was so close, but she didn’t. She stayed. She says she won’t do it. I have to believe her, I have to, because if I don’t–
I have to.
I do. She promised. She’ll stay. I don’t know what strength it is she finds to keep living when she wants so much not to, but I’m glad she has it.
I wrote this months ago and never posted it, because I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or not. I still can’t tell – I’ll leave it up to you.
A while ago Midnight and I were joking around, and she asked me what my secret was – “How can you be so badass?” Needless to say, I cracked up immediately. But I did start thinking about it, and I realized that I actually do know the rules.
There are two Cardinal Laws of Badassery, and you only need to follow one. (If you are truly spectacular, you may even be able to pull off both.)
1) Be so frickin scary no one messes with you
2) Know how to laugh at yourself
Then there are two . . . sublaws, not quite as important but still useful:
3) No situation is awkward unless you say so
4) Be yourself – or at least be consistent
So. Here we go:
1) Be so frickin scary no one messes with you
This is definitely the easiest way to go for fictional characters, but in real life (and frequently in fiction), it is nigh impossible to pull this off properly. You end up just being a jerk, and no one likes a jerk. Part of being badass is that you are cool. People may hate you a little, or even a lot, but they admire and respect you as well. No one respects a playground bully. However, if you adhere to a strict code of honor and are rigorously fair and all that jazz, it will often work, and you can be Shogun. The main problem is that you can always be outclassed by someone badder than you. There is no exception.
2) Know how to laugh at yourself
This one is much harder, because laughing at yourself is a hard skill to acquire. (Note that I do not mean laughing at your own jokes.) Once you’ve got it, though, and if you can maintain it, you are bulletproof for all time. Your detractors can mock you as much as they want; if you mock right along with them, they look stupid and you look like the bigger man. Everyone in the room can be laughing at you, but if you laugh with them the joke is suddenly on the mockers. This will often gain you respect, as people realize you are stronger – and cooler – than they expected. Bonus points if the mockers get all flustered and start shouting, because then all you have to do is keep grinning. Even more bonus points if you’re polite and sympathetic (and maybe just the tiniest bit patronizing – don’t overdo it) as they turn apoplectic and incoherent. (Make sure you actually are in a public place with some sort of authority to stop things if it gets physical, or else make sure you know karate.)
In other words, the main point is to keep your cool. Cutting wit is a definite advantage, but should be used carefully as it can make you just as much of a bully. This Cardinal Law is much more practical in everyday life, as it’s more conducive to actually having friends and such and doesn’t require Mad Ninja Skills. It’s also much harder to be outclassed by someone who’s badder than you, because you’ll probably just end up grinning at each other and going out for ice cream – especially if you follow the rule of Do Not Do Unto Others Until They Have Done Unto You, also known as Don’t Be the One Who Started It.
3) No situation is awkward unless you say so
Basically, refuse to be fazed by anything that should be embarrassing. This is easier if you haven’t actually done anything to be embarrassed about – if it looks worse than it actually is – but all it really requires is the confidence that anything can be fixed by a dazzling smile and/or that anyone who insists on misunderstanding the situation, especially after you’ve explained, is not worth getting worked up over. If you have done something to be embarrassed over, then just shrug, accept the consequences and move on. It is rarely that big a deal. This law also applies to awkward silences, where the rule is that if you don’t want the silence to be awkward, it’s not. End of story. Just turn on your Inner Contentedness and watch the clouds go by or something.
4) Be yourself – or at least be consistent
We’ve all heard this one before: just be yourself, and the world will fall madly in love with you. Birds will sing when you pass. Anything you want will be half-price. Traffic jams will never happen when you’re in a hurry. Flowers will blossom in your footsteps, sometimes through solid asphalt. Basically, Be Yourself and your life is one long happy Disney movie.
Obviously, that’s not the way real life works. But it is true that if you refuse to bend to social pressure in regards to what is the ‘correct’ way of acting, speaking or thinking, people will be impressed. (It may take time. It may also never happen, particularly if you don’t draw much attention to begin with. People are not all that observant.) Thing is, this doesn’t just apply to Being Yourself. It also applies to projecting an Image and sticking to it. Whether the Image you project to the world is the ‘real you’ or not, you ought to be consistent in projecting it.
This is where my own personal values come into conflict with my Laws of Badassery: I believe that you should do your best to Be the Person You Want To Be (by which I mean you should take care to acquire virtues and strengths that you consider important, such as patience or empathy, and make them part of yourself and not just a mask you wear). Being Badass, however, is frequently subject to popular opinion of you, so you may wish to watch out with this one. It may be more useful to project an Image that fits you well enough that upholding it won’t be a trial. This can lead to its own problems, especially if you’re still in the process of growing as a person (teenagers, beware), but it’s a safer way to public acceptance, particularly because you can tailor your Image to suit the society you’re living in.
There are other rules, but they’re all circumstantial, depending on who you are and whom you’re trying to impress. For some people it’s things like appearance, wealth, lots of friends/followers and so on; for others it’s having a particular talent or skill at which they excel, often sports but really just anything; for others it’s standing up to authority, being a rebel, being outside of what’s mainstream. That can be important – how important depends on the society you’re in – but what really matters is how you deal with friends and acquaintances, face down challenges, and handle the world you live in.