Keep Your Head Up

“We ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setup

And even though you’re fed up

Huh, ya gotta keep your head up”

Keep Ya Head Up – Tupac

I had a profoundly affecting experience yesterday that I cannot shake. There’s nothing to be done but feel it and wait for the intensity to subside. It feels so heavy and disappointing and sad, but there’s also some deep love and light woven in.

I spent most of yesterday at the DC jail. I was invited by a good friend to attend an event where the residents were presenting the group project pitches they had been working on for the past eight weeks. The topic? Curbing gun violence in this city. There were 14 groups and all of us guests, about 60 or 70 of us, were randomly assigned a group number and we traveled around to each of the 14 tables. We listened to their pitches, reviewed their presentation materials, and asked questions. Think science fair in a gym only, instead of scrawny and adorable middle schoolers, these students are all ages, shapes, and sizes in bright orange jumpsuits.

The experience itself was awesome. Truly. My cheeks hurt so much from smiling hours after I had passed back out through security and found my way to my car, where all of my electronics and everything except my photo ID were waiting for me. I have never gone through so much security and it was kind of intense for a first-timer. Listening to the residents though was thought-provoking, inspiring, enlightening, and humbling. From teenagers to old men, I was able to look into the eyes of each man as he shared his piece of the presentation and I was struck by how little we, as humans, ever bother to look beyond a label. Whether it is liberal or republican, disabled or athlete, CEO or felon, we rarely put the time, effort, or grace into having a simple conversation with those whose labels flash “other” in our minds like an alarm. I was interested to observe that while not everyone was nervous, most were visibly anxious and there were a lot of shaky voices and hands from men that are probably used to being quite intimidating. It was so humanizing to listen to these phenomenal, practical, uniquely informed ideas on how to effect change in violent crime and youth involvement in this city. When would you ever get to have conversations like that?! I could have done it all day. I wanted to just keep learning and soaking in all the ideas and wondering how, who, and where these ideas might get funding or get off the ground in a tangible way. There were folks from all over the city in attendance, including the White House, and I saw a lot of people taking notes and swapping business cards. I genuinely hope that something, anything, comes of the rich and innovative ideas we heard yesterday.

Despite how moving all of that was, it was not even close to the most impactful part of the day. Before things got started, guests were just milling about, reading the one-pagers we had been given for each of the project groups. There was a brief overview, a picture of the residents who worked on each project, and a list of their names. A few pages in, one name jumped out at me. Let’s call him Bryant Morris — common enough name but one man in the picture on that page looked too much like a Bryant Morris from my past. A student that I knew at the first high school where I was a counselor. For a moment, I thought, “that cannot be my Bryant Morris.” I looked around the gymnasium where probably 50 men in electric orange jumpsuits were scattered. It took less than a second for me to see him. I swear to you, I nearly hit my knees. Disbelief and sadness took my breath away and I almost believed he locked eyes with me from all the way across that gym — even though we were wearing masks and probably haven’t seen each other in 10 years. I had to keep looking away because I didn’t want to believe it. He was SO much bigger than I remember. Full sleeves of tattoos covering arms that looked more like tree trunks. But those eyes? Those eyes were the same as the ones on the baby face of a boy who is inextricably and heartbreakingly linked to one of the worst days of my life.

In 2008, two of my former students were in a car accident one night. They had just graduated the year before and one was my counseling aide and sat in my office every single day with her insanely infectious smile. The accident was bad enough that they needed to fly them to Maryland Shock Trauma. Except the helicopter crashed and killed everyone on board, except one. My aide was killed as were the two flight crew and the local EMT who had boarded to assist during transport. After so, so many surgeries, the surviving student lost her leg and had a lot of scars, both physical and emotional, but she survived.

The crash upended our community. The morning after, when the news broke, we knew two of our students were involved but we didn’t know who. I had seniors that year and my entire caseload of 262 faces went through my mind. I created my first ever Facebook account just to monitor how my kids were doing. It was an unfathomable tragedy and no one was okay. I wasn’t okay. I didn’t know who that first morning but I didn’t want it to be any of the faces I kept seeing in my mind.

I never dreamed they were alumni. I certainly never dreamed it was those two girls, my girls. In another giant fuck you, the EMT who perished was the mother of Bryant Morris, one of our football stars and a universally popular young man with students and staff.

He was out of school for nearly two weeks and when he returned he wasn’t the smiling, fun-loving, always joking kid that he was. Sure, he was still a standout athlete and I was there in the stands when he won the state titles that year in football, indoor, and outdoor track. He just lost his sparkle for a long time. He was (is) the sweetest boy. It makes my chest ache so deeply to remember those days right after the crash — the sickening sadness and profound sense of shock and loss — but also the weeks after when one student was still in the hospital facing a steep uphill battle, everyone else was dead, and Bryant was the one we all watched. It wasn’t really fair. It just seemed like, if we could get him to be okay, we would all be okay too.

There have been so many tragedies since then. So many students lost. So much trauma. So many things I wish I didn’t have to live through, that they didn’t have to live through. At some point, I feel like I became numb to anything new. A few years ago, one of my students, an Honors and AP student, shot another of my boys in the head. Two lives were lost forever that afternoon. I suppose I peripherally felt shock and sadness but, honestly? I felt nothing. It was just one more awful thing in a never-ending string of awful things in the lives of the students I serve.

I learned through all of those awful things the myriad ways that different people experience them, process them, and move forward at whatever pace they can. By graduation Bryant seemed to be doing fine. He got his full scholarship for football and, as the NCAA Coordinator for the entire district, I was there on signing day with tears of joy in my eyes. It felt like a win for all of us.

The last time I saw him, I’m not sure how many years ago exactly but at least 7 or 8, it was on my street. I was driving toward Howard University and Bryant was on a bicycle. The last I knew, he was out west at college where he got his scholarship so it was wild seeing him here, but he told me that he had just transferred to Howard and was the starting corner. He seemed really proud and happy and settled. We talked for a while in the street and then he put his hand on my driver’s side door with the window open and I pulled him up the big hill toward Howard on his bike, smiling as big as ever. The next time I saw him was yesterday, in an orange jumpsuit, in prison.

My group yesterday, of course, was assigned to start at his group’s table and I was not ready. I wasn’t processing fast enough. I wanted to find a quiet corner and have a good, selfish cry before I found some freaking strength. I wasn’t even sure if he would remember me, let alone recognize me with my mask on. It seemed like he was intentionally avoiding eye contact with me when he did his part of the presentation though and, when I heard his voice, there was no way I could deny that the man in front of me was that same sweet boy. It broke my fucking heart into a thousand pieces. After the presentation, he picked up a stack of their flyers to pass out to my group and he started with me. He looked me straight in the eye and I said, “Thank you, Bryant. Do you remember me?” He called me by name and said, “Of course I remember you. I don’t know why or how you are here today, but thank you for coming. Can I talk to you later?”

And so I went around to all the other tables to listen and found him after. I asked if I could give him a hug … and then I gave him about six. We could only chat for a few minutes before we were shuffled to the next building but it was enough to know he’s still that boy, with the same heart, the same bouyancy, the same drive. He told me he’s been in for 24 months now and thinks he’ll be out in eight more. He’s gotten his LLC while inside and is pursuing entrepreneurship so he can “do things the right way” when he gets out. We talked about his offense(s), why the money on the street was too good, and how he just got caught up. He asked what I do now and, when I told him, he said, “Do you all hire felons?” It sobered me up real quick and all the joy I was feeling from reconnecting with an old student in those brief moments evaporated with a big smack of reality. I gave him my email and my same old Pittsburgh number, to which he said with a classic Bryant smile, “Of course. Same as always.”

Then I came home last night and had myself a little breakdown. First I’ve cried in what feels like months but, oof, the floodgates broke wide open. There are kids that you know are never going to fully escape their circumstances. And it is not just the ones that you know are in gangs, or come to school with a gunshot wound, or already wear an ankle bracelet. There are also kids who are barely getting through or that could be doing more than passing but they hate school and, whatever the case, they aren’t going to continue school after high school, if they even graduate. You know those kids aren’t going to make it, despite everyone’s best efforts to help them onto a viable pathway. But then there are other kids that you know, with every fiber of your being, are going to be something. Bryant Morris was one of the latter. Ten years ago, I would have bet you 1000:1 that he would be well on his way to CEO of something by now.

I don’t understand why life is this way. The injustice of the cards you are dealt and all that. I just do not and cannot understand it. There are so many days and circumstances that make it feel like a fucking setup.

Like Pac says, you’ve got to keep your head up. And I would say to that, maybe tomorrow. Today, I’m deep in my feelings and thinking about a boy who already lost everything when he was 15. I have known him for literally half of his life and I cannot help but feel like maybe we didn’t try hard enough to make sure that sweet, funny, beautiful boy was really and truly okay.

I need to do some research over the next eight months to figure out how to actually help now.

All the Stars and Boulevards

Remember that song from back in the early oughts from Augustana? You forgot that was a band, didn’t you? I imagine people of a certain age would remember their hit “Boston,” but this one came to mind tonight. I’m positive I discovered this band through a mix cd someone made me in college, though I couldn’t tell you who or when or why. I was absently scrolling Instagram tonight, as one does, and another college friend shared this poem that hooked my heart and squeezed really hard.

I’m not sure I have anything to say that isn’t articulated or implied or remembered herein. Poetry, like painting and sculpture, is whatever it evokes in you. This one speaks volumes to me.

Music for the Mood:

Stars and Boulevards

Boston

Augustana

Tonight on my walk home from work, I noticed these petunias curiously growing out of a crack in the cement, presumably by happenstance. I feel like there’s a ripe allegory here, but the words aren’t coming to me.

Spring in these pale blue eyes

Not all days are cloudy. This has been a gorgeous weekend full of sunshine, blooms, reconnecting with old friends, and peace.

Wildly entertained by these too-tall irises
😌
Cannot get enough of these bursting roses & ranunculus

I wish there were more of these soft and sweet days and that they could last longer. I know that’s the nature of life – the ebb and flow. Every spring, always after the spring solstice, when the evening walks home still have bright rays of daylight and then some, there is always a point when I can almost viscerally feel the fog clear. The clouds break. The warmth of the sun penetrates into my soul and allows me to take a deep, cleansing breath. It isn’t permanent. It still takes a while to get back to homeostasis, to a more constant state of “up,” but there is nothing like that first deep, unlabored, freeing breath.

In these mellow, reflective, grateful moments, especially after a period of being sucked so far down into the grey depths, I think of that old Velvet Underground song.

“Sometimes I feel so happy

Sometimes I feel so sad”

Music for the Mood: Pale Blue Eyes – The Velvet Underground

It’s always a shame, oh no.

I am heartbroken by the news of Taylor Hawkins’ death overnight. Just 50 years old.

Taylor was the drummer of my favorite band, Foo Fighters. I just read Dave’s autobiography this winter and saw their ridiculous horror movie last month. This band has been part of me for 25 years. I feel like I knew Taylor so well.

I’ve seen them so many times. Their first sold out arena show in DC in 2012 back when it was still Verizon Center, on The Mall in 2014, opening night at the Anthem in 2017, their first time at Merriweather in maybe 2017 or ‘18?, and I was looking forward to seeing them soon in Boston over Memorial Day with my brother and sister in just two months. I’d been waiting for that show since before the pandemic. Incredible to think the show will go on but, without the headliner. Or, so I assume. At least without Taylor. Though I can’t imagine how they go on anytime soon. I can’t fathom it.

This feels awful. It feels really heavy and unfair and, frankly, unbelievable. As much as I am hurting and sad, I cannot imagine what his wife and children and band mates are experiencing. I feel especially for Dave and Pat, who have both already had to deal with the tragic and shocking death of another friend and band mate. And for Dave, another icon. Let’s not debate the value of Kurt versus Taylor, okay? I’ve seen that (near-sighted and self-indulgent) slant and let’s just not go there. Either way, far more tragedy than any person deserves in this life.

For months now I’ve been saying that, at some point every day, and some times all day, I feel like I am one setback away from completely losing my shit. It is terrifying not to know what magnitude of stumble might be the one to push me over the edge. Could it be something catastrophic like another Ukraine, or KBJ not being confirmed to SCOTUS, or something very trivial like not being able to find my keys one morning, or being too hangry to make dinner? Or could it be losing a beloved titan of rock n roll?

I hate loss. I hate it so, so much.

It just keeps coming

Are you a little afraid?

A little alone?

A little exhausted?

Do you give it away?

Do you let go?

Where do you find it?

Don’t leave me drowning in your Sunday rain

It’s right down the drain, I go

Don’t leave me drowning in your Sunday rain

It’s always a shame, oh no

Music for the Mood: Sunday Rain – Foo Fighters

The music for the mood today is a FF song that Taylor and Dave often traded places for when they played live. I find myself hearing Taylor’s voice singing Sunday Rain this morning, singing these words while those hard rock chords pound through my chest. It does nothing to numb the pain but sometimes you need to just feel.

Fun fact: Sir Paul McCartney played drums on this track on the FF album. I just love the hell out of that.

You don’t generally think of him as a drummer. But he laid that track so fucking effortlessly. He never even heard the song – Dave kind of explained it to him with an acoustic guitar. And he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. I think I know what you’re doing.’

Taylor Hawkins – From Rolling Stone, September 6, 2017
Rest In Peace, Taylor. I hope there’s a drum kit waiting on the other side.

Learn to Live Again

Fairly certain I’ve used this song in a previous post but I’m okay with that. I love Dave Grohl, my longest unrequited love. I love the Foos and even went to see their objectively terrible “horror” movie last week. Loved every minute! Pat Smear was the absolute best part throughout. Anyway, this song is one that spirals through my mind often enough that I suppose it’s kind of like the soundtrack of my life in a lot of ways.

I recently got this sticker and put it on my laptop … to make it mine and try to erase the memory that the last person to type on these keys, for the better part of two years, was actually not me. It was a man I loved, wholly and without hesitation, a man I gave my laptop to without question, but also a man who isn’t at all the person I thought he was. I’m still having trouble accepting that the John I knew, the John I loved, was the same person who lied to me from the moment he met me. It’s easier for me to think of them as two different people. I want to keep the good memories and those only exist in the person who was never real.

I met with my therapist tonight for the fourth time and, while I guess I am still glad that I am making this investment in myself, I am also angry that I have to. It’s a hell of a lot of money and just so much mental and emotional work. I am angry that I have to pay to talk to someone every week about betrayal because I cannot figure out how to process it on my own — me, someone who has spent two decades working in mental health!

I’ve experienced a lot in this life. A lot of loss. A lot of emotional trauma. A lot of things that I’m only now realizing may have made me an easy target for a man like John.

My therapist told me tonight that John is a sociopath. This is a label that I am having trouble accepting right now. I don’t think it’s accurate; I think it’s actually inappropriate and unprofessional. But I also question what I know … about anything anymore. I feel like she’s making a diagnosis of someone that she only knows through four conversations with me, and this online journal. I have known a sociopath before, years ago, I dated him; he was evil and I struggle to assign the word “evil” to the John I knew the past three years.

The therapist though is trying to get me to accept that there are not two people, like I keep referring to during our sessions. There is just one person. One man who intentionally talked to me in a bar in July 2018 while he had another woman at home. He came home with me. He woke up with me. He asked for my number. He intentionally kept seeing me. He gained my trust, made me feel comfortable and understood and like I had finally found a someone that I did not want to imagine life without. He never told me about the other woman.

This therapist described my experience as catastrophic and emphasized that John did that to me; a good man could not have done that, to me or to his fiancé. She’s trying to get me to accept that although he tried to tell me he didn’t want anything serious in August 2018, that all of his actions prior to and in the three plus years after did not indicate that he was already in a serious relationship. He never told me he was sleeping with anyone else, let alone living with them and engaged to them.

She’s trying to help me see that I was too trusting, that what I thought was convenience (him always coming to me, or respect for my need for space, or admission of feeling sad in winter and needing to hibernate) — all of these things that I thought made us alike were really just easy ways for him to take advantage of my trust. I made it too easy for him to live two lives and to take advantage of the goodness in me.

While it is very easy to beat myself up about being too trusting, it isn’t very helpful. Because at the end of the day, I cannot help but think about all of the time we spent together, the conversations we had, the things we experienced, and I cannot make myself accept that a deceitful person was in those times, conversations, and experiences and continually & intentionally thinking of what to say to protect his double life. The reality is that half of the dystopian Trumpian nightmare, the fucking insurrection, the election, all of Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, all of COVID, so many tv shows and movies, the end of GoT, nearly all things sports, a particular SNL skit about Philly, so many dumb little inside jokes, all of my experience with my appalling excuse for a manager, all of my application and selection process for grad school, all of my experiences with every cohort of scholarship recipients — EVERY PIVOTAL AND TRIVIAL PART OF THE LAST THREE YEARS were experienced with this human. All of those experiences and memories cannot be divorced from my conversations with John about them. His thoughts and perspectives on those things are essentially mine; they always have been. I couldn’t have experienced them with anyone else and, even still, wouldn’t have wanted to. How fucked up is that though??

Why can’t I get my brain to accept that this person was LYING to me the entire time I knew him? There is no reason to believe that his compassion, empathy, earnestness, or curiosity about and toward the world and other humans was ever real. But how do I accept that?? It means I also have to accept that none of the good was ever real, and that all of the happiness I felt was based on bullshit. In theory, I understand that he likely just fed off of what I felt and expressed it back because he knew that was a way to make me feel seen and heard and a sense of solidarity and belonging. We were peas in a pod, in my experience. Not his though, I guess. Or, he just had two (or more) pods. I have no idea. Who does?

There is literally not one person who knows more about the situation with my boss, no one who knows how fulfilling and proud I am of the work I have been doing the past four plus years. I have never had a role that I felt fit me better, like it was handcrafted for me. And yet, the lack of leadership and toxic relationship I’ve experienced because of my completely inept and insecure manager the past two and a half years has been incredibly stressful. John has been around since the day this moron was hired. I work 50-60 hour weeks with no support, no understanding of the actual work or even education, generally, no acknowledgement of the immense effort it takes to do the work well – beyond glowing performance reviews but also a hostile working relationship. I applied to this management program with John’s encouragement, and he was as excited as I was in September when I finally got in after two years of trying. At least, he seemed to be.

When I finally reached my breaking point and applied for a new job tonight though, he was the first person I wanted to tell. I actually had the thought that he would be proud of me and, at my hesitation to leave a job I love, he would say “Fuck her.” He would be right and hearing him say it would fortify me and make me smile. But I didn’t have him to tell. And because he was really the only person I ever confided in about it, instead, I just didn’t tell anyone. Except this therapist — which I also only have because of him. Thanks, man?

Before our next chat, I’m supposed to send this therapist a list of the aspects about this whole nightmare that have had the most impact, the things that we’re going to systematically work through together. There are too many, she says, so we need to narrow it down. I am stuck. I know I need to start recognizing that the “good guy” and the “good memories” are figments. I know he’s a bad dude who intentionally deceived me, and his now wife, for more than three years, every single fucking day. That he continually and willfully made the choice to lie. Honestly, I never thought he was smart enough for that level of duplicity, but I am slowly starting to acknowledge that I was duped in more ways than I can process at any given time. Acceptance is another animal, altogether.

This therapist also says that it’s not my place to worry about her, about Crystal, his now wife. That I’m a good person and that’s why I worry almost every day, at some point, about whether she is doing okay and if she has support and what will happen when he does it to her again. And when she thinks back to five months ago, a month before she married him, to when I told her who I was and that I’d unknowingly been in a relationship with her fiancé since 2018… I can’t imagine the guilt and shame that will come with the realization that she made the wrong choice. Maybe it already has? The therapist says that she is still picking her own jaw up off the floor to know that Crystal married John. My friends and family are too, but I’m not. I know how charming he is, how much you want to believe in his version of his love for you. “Would she be worrying about you?,” she asked me. No. She probably hates me, even though I don’t deserve it. But, as someone who’s been cheated on before, I also don’t blame her. And I will not apologize for trying to make sure she knows what and who he really is. I wish someone had told me. There were people in the bar that night in July 2018 that had to have known that John was living with, not just roommates, but a woman he was sleeping with and had been for years, even though they weren’t engaged then. He was too fucking social. Someone knew.

But also, if John is really a “sociopath” or, even at the very most has some pathological penchant for lying, shouldn’t I worry about her? As the only other person who was victimized by him, at least in this situation, shouldn’t I try to make sure she’s okay, as a woman?

I’ve tried to play devil’s advocate — that maybe she still doesn’t know? That it’s possible she never got my email in October and he never told her. But when I’m in that absurd thought loop, the therapist reminds me that I shared this blog with people I found on social media that were on their wedding guest list (left on my laptop) after I found out the wedding actually happened. And I don’t know who they were, of course, but there were hundreds of views on this website in the following days so there are people in their lives who know. People who should care enough to tell her, and support her. The regular views here come from all the places they & their village live.

I tried to push back too by saying that he’d probably tell everyone I’m just some crazy bitch or that it wasn’t that significant. The John I knew would never say that about me — but she also reminded me that all the details are here. On these many pages, in these tens of thousands of words. There is just no way that anyone who reads them, especially anyone that knows one or both of them, could possibly think it was any less. Even if it seems impossible to believe.

It’s not my business whether they or she believe it. I’ve done my part to make people aware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. That’s all I have control over.

So I want to live again. Sooner than later. I have to get it out so I can move on. That’s what all of this drivel amounts to. Four months of pouring onto the page. Living again is the goal. I’d love to love again but I’m not sure that’s possible. Sidenote: do you know how many “John”s there are on online dating? It is brutal, y’all. I swipe left on every single one.

I’m trying. That’s something I’m proud of. There are no days where I don’t think about it, about him, about why I have to go through this. Yet. But the amount of time it takes up in my day is getting less. The sadness still weighs a lot and comes in waves. The anger and thirst for vengeance comes less frequently. I’m hanging my hat on that for now. Little by little. After all, it’s times like these we learn to live again, right?

It’ll be a while before I’m ready to give again. This is the selfish season of my life. I hope it doesn’t last too long.

Music for the Mood: Times Like These – Foo Fighters