It feels both utterly cliché and utterly appropriate to write about gratitude now, two days before Thanksgiving. I’m not usually one to jump on the bandwagon with such things: why be grateful and tout your gratitude only one day, one week, one month out of the year when we have 365 days, 52 weeks, 12 months in which we can celebrate and live in gratitude? Why express gratitude then if, during that one day, that one week, that one month, you just aren’t feeling grateful? Why fake the gratitude just because some holiday or cultural ritual (which may or may not have meaning for you) tells you it’s time to give thanks? I say, “pfffft.” If you feel grateful now, sing it, dance it, shout it in whatever way you can. If you decide in the middle of January that the warmth of your hot chocolate on a cold, snowy night is your time of thanksgiving, sing it, praise it, revel in your gratitude then. If it suddenly sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise as you watch the sunrise one morning in March, let that morning, then, be your time of thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving rants aside, I am thinking about gratitude. (I have many, many thoughts right now I am trying to rein in and focus, so I apologize if this becomes disjointed). Lately, I have noticed a change in myself. It’s been sneaking up on me for a bit now, and I’ve noticed glimpses of it off and on, but more and more consistently I notice that I am feeling…(I can’t find the word I want here, and realize I’m balking a bit—taking the easy way out—backpedaling, finger over the backspace key). Here’s a story:
The night I was sexually assaulted (have I ever written that out, directly, on here before? I think not. And there it is, in black and white—backpedaling, finger over the backspace key, I continue), the woman who was with me—a friend, I thought, was just one of the people who hurt me beyond what I thought was possible. It’s funny what stays with you when you hurt like that. I recall one conversation we had a few weeks before the assault and subsequent ending of our friendship. I don’t know what we were discussing, but I used the word “strength.” There were several people standing around, witnessing this conversation.
“What did you say?” she asked, laughing.
“What did I say about what?” I asked, confused.
“The word you just used. Say it again. S-t-r-e…”
“Strength?” I asked, totally lost.
She shuddered, dramatically. “You know you say it wrong, right? I hate when people mispronounce things, and so many people say that word wrong.” She shuddered again. “Argh, I always want to tell people ‘just say it right, and if you can’t pronounce it, don’t use it.’ Say it likes it’s spelled.”
“How do you say it?”
“Strength,” she said. I couldn’t hear the difference.
“What did I say?”
“Strength. You say it like Amelia* says it. I want to smack her every time she says it.” Amelia was someone in our program at school that this friend hated. Hated, with a capital H, and probably a capital A-T-E-D, too. To be equated to her was definitely not a good thing. I was embarrassed—the people around me didn’t say anything. For those few weeks, I caught myself when I was about to say that word, unsure of whether I was going to say it “correctly” or “incorrectly.” I’m still not sure if I say it correctly or incorrectly, or even if the way I say it or said it is or was correct.
After the assault, though, every time I heard this word, I was reminded of this conversation—and subsequently of the hurt, of the assault, of the loss of the friendships, the loss of trust—a single word became enough to literally take my breath away as though I was under the enormous weight of the word. Strong. Strength. You don’t realize how much people use the word “strength” until it takes you to a heart-racing, mind-flashing place every time you hear it. The funny thing is, people talk more about strength after an event like a sexual assault than they do at any other time. Well, in actuality there’s really nothing funny about it: having your sense of power and autonomy stripped away, feeling like you are scraping down as far as you can reach to dig up one iota of whatever will get you up and through the day, and being unable to even use the word “strong” without feeling as though you crumble into a million pieces is a situation no word fits. “Funny” will have to do.
I struggle with the concept of being strong, and my issue with the idea of being strong goes back much further than the story above. (Tell the story here. Just tell it. Take your finger OFF of the backspace key).
I was 11 years old. My 9 year old sister was having her 4th heart surgery, and I had spent hours in the waiting room and walking around the hospital entertaining my 4 year old sister. In the waiting room, I listened to a mother on the phone telling family members that her son did not make it through surgery. I try to shield my sister from the raw grief before us and we go for a walk. In the playroom, we meet a little boy who has tubes coming from seemingly everywhere and is attached to a big, beeping machine taller than he is. “Hi,” he says to us. “My name is Henry, and I’m waiting for a heart.”
Hours later, I am allowed into the PICU to see my sister, an hour out of surgery. She looks tiny on the little, low bed, and looks nothing like the loud, obnoxious sister I know. “Talk to her,” my mother says. I can’t. My throat closes, my eyes fill with tears, and I can't breathe, much less fake a smile. “Leave,” says my mother, pointing to the door. A well-intentioned nurse pulls me aside. “Your sister is going to be fine. You have to be strong for her, you’re her big sister! Be a big girl and go tell her she’s going to be okay. She needs you to be her strong big sister.”
“What’s this?” my grandfather asks, rounding the corner. “None of that. Pull it together now, pull it together. Aren’t you going to be nice and strong for your sister and your mother? Pull it together.” I swallowed my tears and walked back into the PICU.
And one more story:
When I was 20, I had two sisters with serious health problems. I was a senior in college, a few short months away from graduating, trying to finish classes, I took some time off to be at the hospital when my sister had surgery. In the midst of it all, I reached a breaking point. I was sitting in the waiting room, studying while my grandfather sat across from me doing a crossword puzzle. Without saying anything to him, and just really wanting to be left alone, I quietly started to cry. My grandfather looked up from his crossword puzzle. “I am so tired of you crying all the time. Why can’t you just be strong like me? You have people depending on you. What would your mother say if she knew you were crying right now? Pull yourself together.” I stood up, turned my back on him, and moved to walk out of the waiting room. He called my name and I turned, hoping for an apology. Instead, he flipped me the bird.
There are three stories. Just three.
Amalia Ortiz, in her poem “Some Days” writes, “When people tell me I am a strong woman/I want to tell them I don’t always feel very strong. Some days I get so tired of being strong I want to let my legs collapse under the weight of the world on these shoulders and just cry myself to sleep./ Some days some days I get so tired of being strong frustration sends me pacing the floor, no solutions, no where to go, nothing to do but pace myself crazy… Some days,” she ends, “we must let ourselves fall apart, before we can move forward.”
For a while, it was important to me to try to reclaim that word and the last line of that poem went through my head constantly. "Some days, we must let ourselves fall apart, before we can move forward." It was important for me to try to see myself as “strong.” To believe that I am a strong woman. I tried to redefine it. I tried to change my view of it. I tried to change how I pronounce it. It didn’t help. It wasn’t mine. It isn’t me. I resigned myself to the fact that, perhaps, I just am not “strong.” I am not a woman who has the strength I am supposed to have. Not strong enough. Not strong, though, is weak. I don't want to be strong, but I definitely don't want to be weak.
But I started this post to be about gratitude. And it is—really—if you made it this far, stick with me here until the end. I am not strong. I don’t want to be strong. I don't have to be, I've realized, and the weight that takes off my shoulders is liberating. For the first time, I don't feel that I have to be strong. The change I’ve noticed is that, most days, I am more confident. I am looking the day square in the face, ready for what it brings me. I am greeting the world with eyes wide open, willing to give and slowly—but slowly—willing to receive. Trust is a long time coming. Once it’s lost, I don’t know that you ever fully get it back. But it’s coming. And it’s not because I’m “strong.” It’s not because of some reserve of strength I have stored somewhere inside me that I am able to summon when I need it. It’s not because I have some inherent strength to pull it all together and keep marching like a good soldier should.
It’s because I’m resilient. Resilience is not a trait, but a process. It’s the “bounce back” process. The “get up and try again” mechanism. The ability to find the people, resources, supports, and thoughts I need to cope, navigate my environment, and move forward. It is not something inherent in me that I have because of these or other events, or something that I just happened to be lucky enough to be born with. It is, in part, because I do have access to the things I need. It is in part because of my personality and who I am as a human being. In short, for me, I see resilience as a power I have, and that is important, vital, precious. I don’t believe things happen in our lives for a reason. I also don’t believe that bad things happen to teach us something, to show us how strong we are, or to test us. I believe that things happen. Good things happen. Bad things happen. What we do with that determines where we go in our lives. Not who we are—but where we go.
I don’t know where I’m going, but I know that this resilience—this power that I have as I navigate my internal and external world, is something I want to celebrate: to sing it, praise it, shout it in whatever way I can. For that, I am truly, undoubtedly, and immensely grateful.