The Hole in My Heart …

I’ve been thinking about grief today. About how it is so strange and sometimes so unexpected. About how you think you are “over” something … or how the world around you thinks you should be “over” something … but how that something never truly seems to go away. Perhaps it will sink to the background for a while. It might even sink out of sight for a long while. But, eventually, it is going to jump up and take you by surprise. As I worked away today, these thoughts were in the back of my mind, humming away beneath the knowledge of all the things I needed to accomplish before my work day could be done.

And it all started with a dream that was so vivid and clear and unexpected. Have you ever had a dream like that? This was a dream of years and years ago, when I was younger and, in many ways, more free in my life and my choices. I wanted to stay in this dream so badly that waking up to my reality was a shock. I woke up in tears and feeling unsettled, and it took me a few moments to figure out why. And then, of course, I felt ashamed of my grief that should have passed long ago. I am left wondering why I can’t get over this. Why does this particular grief continue to creep up on me and steal my breath away even now, over a decade after I suffered this loss?

Because, you see, I have a hole in my heart. It is not a physical hole, but a spiritual one. And it is shaped like a dog. Not just any dog, but my soul-mate dog. I wonder if everyone has one of those. Honestly, I didn’t know they existed until my sweet Tex came into my life. He was my first Springer Spaniel. He was my first puppy that was all mine; my first dog that I was solely responsible for as an adult. He was my first dog to live inside, as my mother never allowed us to keep our pets indoors when I was growing up. And, for many, many hard years, Tex was Everything to me. That dog was my entire world. He went through law school with me, which was a horrible and miserable time in my life. He went through my first few jobs with me. These, by the way, were also horrible and miserable. He helped me survive a painfully long and difficult long-distance relationship. This, eventually, had a happy ending, but getting to “happily ever after” was a slog. He slept with me and comforted me when I was alone. He stayed by my side when I had pneumonia. He Velcroed himself to me in every aspect of my life. I took him everywhere with me. I know many people will roll their eyes as I type this, but you dog people out there will understand: He was my child before I had a human child. Tex was, and still is, THAT dog for me. If I could have had him for forever, even if it meant I would never have another dog, I would have been happy with that. It’s not that I don’t love my current dogs. I do. But I would have happily lived with Tex for the rest of forever.

And that brings me to my dream. It was such a simple dream: me, sitting under a tree reading a book … and I looked up to see Tex running toward me. I was overwhelmed with happiness, just seeing that silly dog grin on his face and his floppy ears flying. Just seeing him again. And then, of course, I woke up to the reality of a world without my beloved boy. Thoughts and memories of him have kept me unsettled all day today. It’s lucky for me I didn’t have to do any phone calls or video conferences for work.

And yet, I feel I must hide my grief. Tex has been gone for a LONG time. He left me when he was almost fifteen, and that was fourteen years ago. He’s been gone much longer than he could ever have lived. And yet, it feels like just yesterday when that bond was shattered. I feel … embarrassed … like there is something wrong with me. Why can’t I get over this? Why do I still cry when I dream about him? Why do I keep his baskets of toys packed away in my basement? None of my current dogs play with them. No dog will ever play with them. And yet, I keep them and move them from house to house. I just can’t let them go. I have to keep them hidden away. Just the sight of them is enough to break my heart and cause the tears to flow.

The world tells me he was “just a dog”. The world tells me my broken heart should heal. For that matter, the world tells me I shouldn’t even have a broken heart. And yet, I do. I think the world is wrong. Tex was never “just a dog”. No beloved pet is ever “just” a pet, like they are unimportant. They are our joy and our hope. When life is hard, they are our reason to keep going. They teach us to be better than we ever thought we could be. We love them. With great love comes great joy. Love creates a bond, and, when that bond is shattered, it HURTS. It hurts down to the very core of everything we are. I loved that dog. I loved him with all my heart, and I still do. So, maybe, I don’t need to be ashamed of my grief. Because it is honest and born of love, and because it fills the dog-shaped hole in my heart.

COVID-19 Dreams & Elusive Ideas …

I know, I know. My post title is weird. And guess what that means? Yep: My post is probably going to be weird, too. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Really, what I want to talk about in this post is dreams, in general. Over the past couple of days, I have had two dreams that really stand out to me. One of them because it continues to feel so fresh and vivid in my brain. The other one because it is humming away in the back of my brain, but I can’t recall any of the details. And, of course, the dream I don’t want to remember is the one that continues to stand out to me, while the dream I very much want to hang on to slips and slides away from my memory. Isn’t it crazy how that works? Like … why, Universe? Why???

A couple of days ago, a story idea came to me in a dream. It actually came to me in that twilight time when I was suspended between being fully asleep and fully awake. Y’all! This was the greatest, most amazing, most awesome story idea ever. Ever! Even as I was sleeping, I remember thinking to myself, “Self! This is a fabulous idea! We need to write this!” This idea had everything: great characters, action, a little bit of drama, and even some funny parts. As my alarm went off to tell me it was time to get up, I felt so exhilarated and excited about this idea.

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The moment I woke up, I rushed to my office space, intending to write this idea down. And when I say “the moment”, I mean it. I didn’t even pause to do my morning stretches or use the facilities. I know, I know. That’s TMI. But it’s important that you get the idea here. This is how excited I was. This is how awesome this story idea was!

And guess what? As soon as my butt hit the chair in front of my computer … *poof*. My fabulous idea was gone. Well, it’s not completely and totally gone. It’s still in there, hanging around on the edges of my memory and taunting me with its awesomeness. But I can’t remember any of the details from it. None. I am left with this fabulous-shaped hole and nothing with which to fill it. It’s so frustrating. Frustrating beyond measure.

And then, last night, I had a completely different type of dream. We are living through such a stressful time right now. I feel like I do a pretty good job of maintaining — or attempting to maintain — my usual optimism. I’ve been trying hard to “just keep swimming”, as Dory would say. But it’s stressful! Sometimes it hits me just how much things are out of control. How much I don’t have control over anything in my life or anything around me. I realize control is nothing more than an illusion at the best of times. But, at the best of times, it’s easier to believe in the magic. When times are tough, it seems like you can see the magician pulling every wire behind the curtain.

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Last night, I guess the stress built up to a boiling point for me. It manifested in a stress dream. It was a ridiculous stress dream that made me laugh in the light of day. And yet, it was no less stressful for all of its ridiculousness. Even as I told my husband about it and laughed at how silly it was, I felt the uneasiness and stress of it gathering inside my mind and body. And you know what? I can recall every single detail of the upsetting dream. The colors around me, the sounds, and even the smells all come back to me in vivid detail. I don’t even have to try and recall it. It’s just there, lurking under the surface of my subconscious.

Why is it that I can vividly recall the dream I would rather forget, but I can’t remember anything about the dream I want to hold onto? It seems like this is always the way of things, isn’t it? We let go of things we should cling to and cling to things we should let go. I’m sure I don’t have the answer to why this is, and I’m not going to figure it out in the space of one (or a gazillion) blog entries. But I guess it is something to think about, in our spare time — you know, when we aren’t foraging for toilet paper or disinfecting our groceries or washing our hands.

Don’t mind me. I’ll just be over here in the corner, trying to remember the things I should and forget the things I shouldn’t. Or … something like that.

 

If I Had My Choice …

“If I had my choice …” or “If I could choose any one thing, I would …”

How many times have I heard these phrases? Or read them? It’s likely that we hear them so many times a day we begin to overlook them or ignore them. They become so much white noise added to the background of our lives. I find myself thinking these phrases often. Just this morning, I was thinking about how certain things in my life are not the way I would prefer them to be. And I thought about how it didn’t feel as if I had come to this place in my life, physically or emotionally, by choice. To a large extent, I feel like most of my life has been a case of making the best of whatever was handed to me, whether by the people around me or by the universe at large or whatever. And I found myself thinking it …

If I had my choice, I would …

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Presumably, the end to that sentence is that I would choose a different path. Or I would pick something better for myself. Or more fun. Or more … whatever. The ending to the sentence isn’t what really matters. What really matters is the thought that immediately popped into my head, which was this: “But would I? Would I really?”

I do believe Life has, more or less, happened to me. To a large extent, I did not participate in the choices I made that led me to where I am. I followed along with the plans others had for me. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents or, later, my husband. And so, I went with the flow, more or less. I never thought about what I wanted. I never thought about what my own dreams were. I never thought about … well, anything. I never planned anything. Or, if I did have the shadow of a plan in my mind, I let it go all too readily and easily in the face of what others wanted.

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In some ways, it’s liberating, isn’t it? I mean, to feel like you can look back at your life … or that you can look at the unhappy/unpleasant/untenable situation you are in … and realize you are there because you simply flowed along in the river of life, absolves you of all responsibility. Right? It’s not like you are unhappy because of choices you made. Or that you feel stuck and ineffective because of things you actively did. Someone else put you in that spot. And, if you had had your own choices or your own way, things would have been better.

But, seriously. This isn’t true at all, is it? Because I did choose. I chose every single thing that got me to where I am today. I chose those things by NOT choosing anything. I chose those things by following along with what others wanted and by making the best of whatever was tossed my way. I chose through inaction.

It kind of hurts, when I think about it this way. When I sit and think about it and am honest with myself, it hurts a lot. It makes me a little sick to my stomach. And that’s how I know it is at least partially the truth. That sick-to-my-stomach feeling almost never leads me astray. It is almost always right. Maybe not totally right, but for the most part.

So that brings me back to my original thought today: If I had my choice … Would I be capable of choosing? I honestly don’t know the answer to this question.

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The truth is that I never had choices growing up. In my formative childhood and young adult years, I didn’t have the freedom to make my own choices or to dream my crazy dreams. I didn’t have the freedom to dream any dreams. My parents, and, in particular, my mother, had very specific plans and expectations for me and for my future. I was supposed to be a certain kind of person. I was supposed to approach the world in a certain kind of way. I was supposed to do certain things with my life.

I wrote. And my writing, in a way, was my dream and my escape. I used it to let myself wander free from the expectations and the plans that were laid before me. But the truth is that I was never strong enough to break away from those expectations. I kept my writing secret, because it was a source of mockery and ridicule in my family. My brother’s creative talent for drawing was celebrated. My talent for writing was not. My parents were not interested in it in the least. It was never taken seriously. Not even by me, even though I kept on doing it in secret, hiding my scribbles here and there in my room.

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When I went to college, I continued to toe the line with regard to my parents’ expectations. I was supposed to get good grades. I did that. I was supposed to major in a certain thing. I did that. I was supposed to go to law school. I did that, too. At one point, right before I moved for law school, I realized I did not want to do this. I wanted to take a step back and think about what I wanted for my own future. But my parents were adamant that I not delay. “If you don’t go now, you will never do it,” they said. And I didn’t believe in myself enough to voice the logical reply that rang through my mind: “And so what if I don’t?” I didn’t believe in myself enough. I wasn’t strong enough. And so, I went. I moved to a town I hated. I suffered through 3 years of school that I hated. I worked in a profession I hated.

And so, here I am. I am almost 50 years old. And I still have no idea who I am. I still have no idea what I want. I don’t know what my dreams are. Or if I even still have dreams. I mean … is it too late for that? I’m a mom. Does that mean my time is over? Does that mean my daughter is the one to have dreams now, and I am only here to make her dreams a reality? Do I only exist to make others happy?

But this can’t be right, either. Can it? Because thinking about this … thinking about how I have never been a “real” person to anyone around me … It feels wrong. Like, maybe it’s the truth, but I don’t want it to be the truth. It’s not MY truth. I want to have dreams. I want to figure out who I am and what I want. I want to work at making my own dreams come true.

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But, if I have never let myself dream or plan or hope or want, do you think it has now become impossible for me to do so? If I have been trained, from the earliest age, to be a person who wants nothing and only makes the best of whatever is handed to her, do you think it is possible to change this? If I make a conscious, concerted effort to sit down and think about what I want from my own life, do you think it is possible to undo a whole lifetime of “this is how you are”?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t. But I feel that part of being kind to myself in 2019 has to be sitting down to think through all of these things. I have to start taking a step back from what others want. I have to start actively thinking to myself, “Self, what do YOU want? Is it the same as what others want from you? Or is it different?” I have to start thinking about the person I am and the person I want to be. I have to start figuring out how to believe in myself. Even a little bit.

Will I be any good at this? Honestly, I don’t think I will — at first. But I think, with practice, maybe I can get better at it. Maybe I will always stumble and get tangled up in the expectations of others. But, if I realize I am doing this, that is an improvement. And learning how to untangle myself will be like taking giant leaps and bounds forward, instead of the marching in place I have been doing for most of my life.

So, let’s do this, 2019. Let’s figure out how to dream our big dreams — at last.

The Waiting Game

Is there anything as painful and as wonderful as waiting for something you really want? I don’t think so. It’s a constant internal struggle of ups and downs. It’s a constant stream of private drama and whispered conversations with oneself. “Could this really happen?” your mind asks, “Could it really come true? It would be like a dream — an actual, real-life dream — if it did. I want to think about it all the time. And yet, I don’t want to think about it at all. Because … what if?”

It’s delicious and horrible and wonderful and oh-so painful, all at the same time. It’s kind of like being in love, this type of waiting. It tugs and pulls your heart one way and, then, the next, all within the space of moments. And this happens again and again and again. It’s a delicate dance between hope and fear. The prospect of a private dream coming true is so beautiful and thrilling that it takes your breath away. And yet … The fear of “what if” is always lurking there, in the background.

What if nothing happens? What if the dream remains unfulfilled? The hope of something new and exciting spreads out before your mind, filled with joy and laughter and golden light. But the what if lurks in the shadows. You’re not sure you can cope with the “what if” part of things. Because it means nothing will change. That pathway into the future seems desolate and dark, devoid of hope and happiness.

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I’m in the midst of my own waiting game. The suspense is wonderful, because I feel so full of hope. For the first time in several years, I can feel hope creeping in around the edges of my thoughts. It practically bubbles over inside of me, until I want to giggle like a loon. It’s strange, really, because this is the hope of something unknown. And yet, if it works out, it will, in some strange way, bring many things full-circle for me and for my little family.

I feel anxious and excited and terrified, all at the same time. I want to laugh at the possibilities of it all. And then, I want to cry with the fear that it might not happen. Because, if it doesn’t happen … Well, I’m not sure how I will manage to soldier on. I know that sounds terribly drama-queen of me, but there is a slice of my being that knows I will be despondent if this doesn’t happen. I don’t even want to think about that. I don’t want to think about any of it. And yet, it’s nearly all I can think about. My brain is full of hamster wheels, and they are constantly in motion. Turning, turning, turning.

I don’t have any control over it. I can’t do anything to make this thing happen. All I can do is sit, and wait, and pray. I think I have been talking God’s ear off with my little hopes and dreams. Sometimes, I feel very peaceful about it all. But then, anxiety creeps in because this is something I want so, so much. I’m not naive enough to believe it will be the answer to all my problems. In some ways, it could create more problems, at least in the short run. But, even so, my heart sings with the possibility. And trembles with the fear.

And the waiting continues.

Everything You Want

What if you could have Everything you wanted? It seems like it would be great, doesn’t it? Or fabulous or perfect or whatever it is that comes beyond all those words that lurk in our minds alongside “great”. It lives in your mind, that “Everything”. It lives there like a dream. You can close your eyes and feel it there, taking shape somewhere inside your soul. You can see the edges of it. You can smell the smells and taste the flavors that make up your dream — that make up your “Everything”, whatever that may be.

It’s beautiful and bittersweet. You just know, if you could only get your “Everything”, your life would be all fixed. It would be perfect and happy. There would be no more worries and no more arguments and no more fear of what might happen and no more stress over possibly making a wrong choice. Because, of course, this is your “Everything”. Everything You Ever Wanted. How could it be wrong? It couldn’t. That’s what your mind tells you. That’s what the dream tells you. And the dream is right: it is perfect and beautiful and happy. And, above all, it is safe. Because it’s just a dream, and you can’t conceive of it ever truly happening in your life. No matter how much you shape it to your will or taste its sweet flavors or feel the roughness of its edges, “Everything” remains insubstantial and out of reach. That’s the bittersweet part. You can feel it. You can taste it. You can see it. But you can’t touch it — not really.

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I have an “Everything”. I have lots of them, actually. But one, in particular, deals with being able to live in a certain place. For years now, the place where we currently live has worn on me. It makes me feel ragged and rubbed raw in the places where my mind and soul meet. For a while now, I’ve found myself thinking in an “if only” sort of way: if only we didn’t live here, things would be better … if only we could go home, back to the place where my heart longs to be, things would be better. I would be better. The rough spots in my soul and psyche would magically smooth themselves over. The birds would sing and fairies would dance outside my window and there would be nothing but rainbows and unicorns. In short, it would be Pretty Damn Good. What? This is my “Everything”. I can have rainbows and unicorns, if I want. The point is this: life looks way better to me on the other side of the fence than it does on this side, where I can see every bit of flotsam and all the blades of grass that have turned brown over the years.

This morning, my husband mentioned something that could make my much longed-for “Everything” a reality. It’s only a slim chance. Really, at this point, it’s not even accurate to call it a chance. It’s a wisp of a whisper of the slimmest possibility. But it’s way more than I’ve had in the last fifteen years of what I think of as my exile. It’s a hint of maybe and, as such, it feels so very concrete. In some realm of the imagination, this could happen. It almost makes me want to cry, just thinking of this teeny-tiny maybe.

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But then, I stopped to think. And the heaviness of reality (even a whisper of a maybe of a reality has a heaviness to it, when we’re talking about something as fanciful as a dream) swooped in and cloaked the edges of my “Everything”. Because the place I left is much-loved in my mind. It is home, and it will always be home. And, as such, it will always be beloved. But it’s not perfect. There are drawbacks and worries and potential pit-falls. Even if it could happen, it might not be the right thing for my family. Or for me. Maybe it just seems like the right thing in my mind because it’s been a dream for such a long time. Because it’s my “Everything”. And because dreams are always perfect and right. They can’t help it. They don’t know how to be anything else.

Sometimes, I think the only thing worse than not having your “Everything” is facing a moment when “Everything” might come true. What if “Everything” is just what I always expected it would be? What if it’s not? Which one of these things is worse? Either way, I will lose the dream I’ve nurtured in my heart of hearts for all these years. If it comes true, it becomes reality and starts to fade and shred around the edges, colored with my all-too-human disappointment in life and in myself. If it doesn’t come true, I have to face the idea that it will likely never happen and, thus, let go. Either one is painful. And I am left feeling human and small and vulnerable in the face of my internal struggle.

 

These Dreams …

So, on the outside, I am cool as a cucumber. I am calm like the perfect sunset over a peaceful ocean. I am confident like a … well, like a really confident person. To look at me, most people would think, “Wow, that gal has it all together.” People who don’t know me, that is. People who get to know me — even just a little bit — quickly discover the sad truth I keep hidden from the world at large.

Underneath this wonderfully serene exterior, I am one hot mess.

It’s all right, I can admit it. After living for so many years with the suspicion that my inner life was a bigger mess than anyone could possibly imagine, it’s almost a relief to type it out loud. It might be a mess, but it’s my mess. I’m strong enough to own it.

The funny thing about my “hot mess” is that, for many, many years, I was able to hide it from myself. I smiled and nodded along, feeling like I was sailing through life with no problems at all. No sweat, I used to think to myself. I’ve got this. I can do this with my eyes closed. Until, suddenly, one day … I couldn’t. You see, my eyes were closed, which meant I slammed up into the wall of truth that was looming in front of me the whole time.

These days, I know it’s bad for me to ignore my feelings and thoughts. I might try to hide them from myself, but, inevitably, they will come back to bite me in the hoo-hah. I might not feel particularly stressed or anxious, but those feelings are there — lurking beneath the surface and just waiting for a chance to photo-bomb my dreams.

assassins and angry birds: plushies on my office shelvesThis is just what happened last night. I had the dreaded “stress dream”. For some reason, my stress dreams almost always revolve around school and test situations. And they always leave me feeling a little bit breathless when I wake up in the morning, the dream so vivid in my imagination that I have to remind myself I am not in school any longer so there’s nothing to fear.

So … my crazy dream last night. I found out I had to take a test. I can’t remember what it was for, but I vividly remember the teacher giving this test was Mrs. Miner, one of my strictest high school teachers. Which was strange, because I was clearly in college in my dream. I was supposed to go buy a blue book for the test, and I was on my way to do this when I ran into my mother. She was standing on the corner two streets away from my apartment, because, apparently, she had nothing better to do than stand around and wait for me to walk by. My mom wanted to go shopping, so I told her she could come along with me. But I told her I had to buy a blue book, because I had a test. I was already worried about this test, because I hadn’t studied for it at all. I didn’t even know I was enrolled in the class! But, there you have it: there was a test, so I would have to buck up and do my best. My mom didn’t want to go buy a blue book. She told me that was boring, and she wanted to go shopping for clothes. I needed “something pretty” to wear because all of my clothes were unattractive. I told her no. I needed a blue book, and I didn’t want any new clothes. I particularly didn’t want new clothes that she was going to pick out for me. She completely ignored me, and I ended up spending the entire afternoon following behind her from one store to the next, trying on clothing I didn’t want and didn’t like. Each time I would try to sneak away to buy my blue book, she would catch me. I was trapped.

Before I knew it, the entire day was gone, and I had to go to class to take my test. But guess what? All the stores selling blue books were closed! There was no way I could find a blue book, and I just knew Mrs. Miner wouldn’t let me into class for the test without one — not that I even should have been in class, anyhow, since I didn’t remember registering for it.

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But, anyhow … I raced back to class and darted in just as Mrs. Miner was closing and locking the doors. I have no idea why we were all locked in, but no one thought to ask about it. Mrs. Miner was like that: you just nodded and stepped smartly along without bothering her for the details. She gave me “the look”. You know, the one that said she knew I didn’t have a blue book or even a pen. She was right. I slumped to my desk and sat down, certain I wouldn’t be able to avert tragedy this time.

I looked up, and my first high school boyfriend was sitting across from me. When Mrs. Miner wasn’t looking, I asked him if he would loan me some paper and a pen. He said  yes, and handed over a marker and one (ONE!!) sheet of paper. When I asked for another sheet of paper, he shrugged and told me I should have brought a blue book with me. I wanted to yell at him, but the test was starting. I heard the timer ding, and someone passed the test paper back to me. There was only one question on the test. It was something about the meaning of life and how we connect to others, and we were supposed to write a ten page essay on it.

Ten pages! I only had one piece of paper and a lousy marker! How was I ever going to pull this off? I decided that, if I could write really, really small, I could fit all the words in on the front and back of my paper. And so, that’s what I did. I thought it was all going pretty well, but Mrs. Miner caught me. She sent me out into the hall to finish the test, because I only had one piece of paper instead of a blue book. Needless to say, she didn’t offer me any more paper. Or a real pen. Or even the little-bitty nubbin of a pencil that should have been thrown out already but wasn’t.

Even worse, I had to carry my desk outside — all by myself. It was heavy! I sat down in the hall — with Mrs. Miner watching me — and proceeded to write my essay in little, teeny-tiny writing. I have no idea why, since Mrs. Miner had already told me she wouldn’t grade it. But, whatever … it’s a dream. Dreams are weird. Once I had filled in the whole front of my paper, I turned it over to find the marker had bled through. The entire back-side of my paper was a huge, black blotch of ink! Dismayed, I turned back to the front side to find … you guessed it! A huge, black blotch of ink, instead of the words I had so carefully crammed onto the page.

I thought all was lost, until it started to rain. My paper melted away in front of me, before Mrs. Miner could see what a mess I had made of it all. She didn’t want to stand out in the rain, so she told me I would have to do a make-up test later.

beads in a cupAnd then I woke up.

As I waited for my heart to stop pounding, I said a little prayer of thanksgiving that I wasn’t in school any longer. And felt really grateful that I can, sometimes, keep my inner “hot mess” hidden from the world.

If they only knew …