by J.M. Phillippe
I can’t remember if my mom picked it out for me, or if I found it myself. I am pretty sure the appeal of the poster was that it was long and narrow, perfect for putting on the back of a college dorm-room door. The colors were pastel-bright and dreamy, that vague 90’s swirly artwork of stars or flowers or something like it served as the background, and all in all it screamed: young girl leaving home to go to college.
On the poster were the words:
I’d done a grade-school project on Anne Sullivan, the woman credited with dramatically changing Hellen Keller’s life. That you could be deaf and blind and still connect to the world amazed me. That you could see past someone’s isolated and nearly savage exterior and believe that there was a person worth connecting to still amazes me. I knew there was wisdom in the words of the poster, and over the next four years, I’d find myself going back to them over and over.
And then my brother died in 2001, and I felt completely lost.
I would feel lost for years. I would bounce from job to job completely unsatisfied. Panic about spending my time well made me waste it. I had this need to not only live my life, but the life he might have lived as well. I became more reckless. I felt restless. I dreamed up and dropped plan after plan after plan, trying to find one that might fit, that might make my life worthy of the word "life". I didn’t fully understand survivor’s guilt then. I didn’t have the words “complicated grief” to describe the way my mother withdrew into herself. I was trying to be a free spirit. I was trying to find my strength undefeatable. I was trying to make every moment count, and feeling like no moment was good enough, would ever be good enough. I was trying to find myself; that’s what people in their 20s do, even if they don’t start the decade with losing their older brother.
I didn’t understand what strong was. I didn’t understand that creating a hard shell wasn’t the way to go. Undefeatable strength shone like a diamond -- cold, bright, beautiful.
I found a new path, one that would take me to a new city, a new career, and a new outlook on life. I started to soften. I started to read about shame, about vulnerability. I discovered Brené Brown, a social worker who spoke about what it means to “dare greatly” in life, and what we need to do so:
“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena, because I think I did it my whole life, and think to myself, I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is that never happens.”
So I started to try to enter the arena of my life as I was, and not wait until I was that perfect hard diamond I thought I needed to be.
My mother died. All my instincts said to go hard again. All my instincts told me the world was a cruel place that will take things from you unpredictably, or when you are on the verge of accomplishment, or starting a new, promising path. It will wait until you have your guard down, and it will strike, so you should never have your guard down. I was in the presence of fate again, and I needed to be strong.
I always thought choice was about action, about taking a path as literally as walking in the woods, and that every path had an inevitable destination. So every choice came to me dripping with expectation, great blobs of insecurity dropping all over me.
It now occurs to me that choices aren’t always linked to action, like hopping from stone to stone. Choices aren’t always about where you are going, but about who you choose to be in the here and now. Not how you set up the next moment, but about how you experience this one. Into all this self-reflection and reframing came other words:
A plant has deep roots and is strong because of them, able to withstand storm and damage and regrow again and again. And I thought, now that’s strength undefeatable.
The world has gotten scary again, and once again I am struck with feelings of loss, of confusion, of fear about the future. Once again I must face the reality that life will always be filled with changes, tragic or otherwise, and that the only thing I can control is whether I try to be a diamond or a plant -- cold and hard, or fragile and vulnerable.
Strong and vulnerable do not seem to go together, and yet...
To keep our faces toward change, to be good human beings by staying open, and to to embrace the vulnerability of engagement - that is the strongest stance any of us can take.
Here's to staying engaged...
J.M. Phillippe is the author of Perfect Likeness and the short story The Sight. She has lived in the deserts of California, the suburbs of Seattle, and the mad rush of New York City. She works as a family therapist in Brooklyn, New York and spends her free-time decorating her tiny apartment to her cat Oscar Wilde’s liking, drinking cider at her favorite British-style pub, and training to be the next Karate Kid, one wax-on at a time.