First Love’s End

 

I don’t know when I knew it was over. Maybe I always knew one day it would end, because really, how often do first loves become forever loves? Maybe it was a gradual disintegration from day one – like the degradation of a compound, it’s half-life immediately ticking away.

We were long-distance so most of my memories of the end are a blur of text messages, frustrating phone calls and tearful nights. I said I was fine, but after the biweekly frat parties or village bar crawls the tears always came. I could not lock them behind my eyeballs any longer. You were everything to me and I was everything to you and we were unhealthy. The love was real but we were frail.

The closest thing to a breakup moment was that time you drove up to LA to talk. We had already drawn our swords with fighting words the night before. “It’s over.” “Fine.” Click. Walking parallel on the sidewalk we bled silently.

We went to a Pho restaurant we had never been to – surprising because we frequented all of the local restaurants in Westwood over the past three years. Enzo’s was our favorite. Well, it was my favorite. They served New York style pizza, dimmed the lights low, and played Frank Sinatra on Saturday nights.

When we requested a table for two at the hostess desk everything was too bright under the neon PHO sign. And too big. With too many people. We were exposed in this place; our breakup moment too intimate for this public, visible setting. I smiled, and almost pretended it was a regular date. We sat in a booth and my eyes scanned the menu. Shrimp rolls. Pad Thai. To this day I always order the same thing. I glanced up, you glanced down. So I looked back down too. My moment of peace pondering Thai delicacies was interrupted by the restaurant’s loud speakers:

I heard that you’re settled down

That you found a girl and you’re married now.

I heard that your dreams came true.

Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you.

All I could think was, Stupid fucking Adele song. That’s also when I ran to the bathroom, hiding my face.

I almost made it out of that night unscathed. Without a tear. Without the moment of terrible loneliness that comes with a first big breakup. Of course I knew I was lying to myself. Of course I knew whether or not I cried, the fear of missing you bubbled underneath. But I wanted to lie to myself, damn it. Then Adele had to come in and ruin it all. That song always did make me cry.

I closed the bathroom door behind me, the dead bolt poorly lined up with the drilled hole in the door jam. With the door closed it was more like a closet. When I turned around she sat in a reading chair. Of course it’s a grand reading chair, upholstered in velvet, because she’s British and everything British people do is grand. At least to us Americans. She sat with her beehive bun piled high on her head, her eyeliner fanning out into a cat eye. Her left hand cupped her face: pointer finger touching cheekbone, thumb grazing jawline, remaining fingers supporting chin. She looked at me with an all-knowing look. Don’t drag me into this.

I glared back. Fine. You’re right.

After my breakdown in the bathroom with Adele I had no where to go, except back to the last dinner we’d eat together. I willed myself to unlock the dingy bathroom door and put one foot in front of the other. Each step from the restroom to the booth felt like walking the plank, high over the dark blue unknown. Because I knew once I slid into our plastic, sterile booth it’d be over and all we’d have was this memory from the Pho restaurant.

 


 

Photo Credit: Khachik Simonian

Last Summer

The humid air hung around my skin, like a dew. Late June and we were shifting our gears from boys and girls to men and women, our bodies seemed to agree but our minds still adolescent in age. Walking up the sidewalk, the living room was dim and the kitchen too bright with fluorescent hues cascading from the window to the sidewalk. Opening the door, I walked into a thick wall of sweet scent as the collection of teens inside gained one more body.

Girls with boys and girls with girls, isn’t fourteen the age we learned how to flirt? For the past year I kept my eyes turned down and iPod buds in my ears — trying to pass unnoticed by the girls already grown into push-up bras and unwanted by the boys who couldn’t stop looking at them. Tonight would be different, tonight I would rewrite my script.

There was a bottle, a single bottle of vanilla vodka. Had I not read the label I would have mistaken it for nail polish remover. We had the big glass bottle and a liter of Coca-Cola. I brought the glass to my lips — and winced. Then the plastic to my lips — sweet relief. One more round, all smiles. Two more rounds, now we giggle.

I pulled my sweater off my shoulders, draped it on a chair. I’m Penny Lane — I danced from one room to the next, announcing my arrival with a hand above my head, gently bent at the wrist. In the dim lights and newfound freedom we grew into our own skin — sweaty and tan and innocent still.

We laughed. We swayed. We fell asleep in clusters on the floor to the gentle hum of a fan. As the first rays of light spilled into the living room, our unwilted bodies magically escaped the claws of headaches and hangovers. Slowly opening our eyes, we gently locked gazes and mischievous smiles curled up our lips.

We ate unnaturally colored Pop-Tarts, singing along to some pop diva who’s bad influence taught us to dance on tables and shake our asses like we knew what that insinuated. Fresh-eyed and rosy-cheeked, we hopped on our bikes and pedaled to the beach. Kicking off our sandals, we didn’t even lay out our towels. Four silhouettes of girls, not yet women, raced into the water and dove under waves. Another day we spent in the sunshine, then another night with the boys and girls gathered around a kitchen table where someone’s mom didn’t care.

It was my last childhood summer.

 


Last Summer is the first short story featured in my new nonfiction series – The Memory Collection.


 

Originally published by Kaitlin Schilling on Literally Literary, a Medium publication.

On Storytelling – With a Little Help From My Friends

Storytelling is the act of inviting someone into an unknown narrative. The invitation: sit next to a storyteller. An even better invitation: sit on the lap of a storyteller for a first-hand view. Stories have the power to enter our own narratives and give us new memories. Stories alter our perceptions of the world and of ourselves.

A good storyteller will rarely tell you what they think – they will show you. Moral objectives are either nonexistent or implicit; good storytellers will not tell you what’s right or wrong. Instead the story itself will challenge your beliefs. In this way, the storyteller respects the reader’s autonomy as much as the reader respects the storyteller’s autonomy. Therein lies the power of storytelling; mutual respect between the reader and the writer. Or listener and speaker, viewer and painter, audience and performer.

While storytelling may have implicit moral messages, often times well-crafted narratives contain explicit details. Explicitness is a form of authenticity. Why? Because it removes the shine and polish we work so hard to maintain. Explicit details allow the reader to experience vulgar and sometimes uncomfortable subtleties present in real stories, in the real world, and in our real lives.

This year I will be launching into a nonfiction collection of short stories – all true and all seared into my brain (sometimes reasons still unknown to me). The collection includes vivid memories from my life; they are not right or wrong or black or white. They do not always have purpose or incredibly deep meaning. They just are.

So with a little help from my friends, I’ve collected a collaborative definition of storytelling:

“Storytelling for me is defined by humanizing either the people or the situation that you are telling the story about. I am a huge fan of interviewers or writers who take people or situations that seem unattainable or unimaginable and make them human. Make them understandable and relatable.” – Nathan D.

“Storytelling for me is inviting others into a story to experience a perspective or event that they otherwise may never experience.” – Kaci T.

“Being able to communicate an idea or event, true or made up, in which the audience is able to feel like they were there, and are able to connect with the story, feelings, emotions, people or ideas.” – Cody S.

“Storytelling to me is communicating an experience that people can relate to, and if done well, plunges the listener into another world.” – Nate M.

“Interpretive communication…Someone sharing their perception of a situation in which they try to reenact emotions, ideas and theories. It also depends on who the story belongs to.” – Ashlee O.

“The spoken form of retelling a made-up or not made-up series of events often revealing a meaningful insight, perspective…or simple laughter. Story telling to me? I’ve most recently experienced it as verbally captured history.” – Sarah E.

“The most effective way we connect and relate to each other as humans, it’s the art of communicating an anecdote of importance and bringing it to life with inflection and passion.” – Sam S.

What does storytelling mean to you?

 

Women

You are my heroes.

You are strong in your innermost parts

A rod of steel running through your midline

An axis from head to toe.

Still you remain soft on the outside

Gentle curves to rest on.

You raise children and brothers and sisters

You nurture biological ones

And nonbiological ones from the same maternal heart.

And while motherhood is beautiful

It is not all you are.

All you are is radiant

And beautiful

And creative

And kind

And strong

And just

And warm

And passionate

And worthy

And fierce

Because you nurture life in others and in yourself.

You allow your big heart to break for the sake of love

And your instinct is to protect

Even when weary.

You are complex

And within your membrane you contain

A burning flame and a tender heart

To serve with a passion and a compassion.

Women,

You are my heroes.


 

Photo Credit: Yury Orlov

 

Why My Past is More Important Than I Thought

Escapism takes many forms. Escape the present by focusing on the past. Or escape the past by only focusing on the present.

I have done both and neither served me well.

When I was thirteen years old kids were awful. It was your run-of-the-mill bullying case. Fat jokes. Rumors. Lies. Name-calling. A clan of mean girls even convinced a desperate kid to pull down my pants in front of thirty peers. It was embarrassing and traumatizing to say the least. After school I walked down the block to my mom’s Chevy Tahoe, face in hands, bawling my eyes out. That was just one day of many in eighth grade. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t an absolute princess either, but the experience sure left an impression.

Through high school the torture and shame had stuck vehemently to my insides. I claimed I was “over it” to anyone who asked, but I grasped the memories of torment with white knuckles. The torment turned to resentment, then judgement and bitterness. I was surrounded by true, supportive friends but oftentimes the painful memories occupied my thoughts to no end. I was so focused on the past I could not see the present.

Five years later I swung to the opposite end of the pendulum. I was reeling from a sexual assault that left me wounded and later scarred. But now all I wanted was to think of the present. The present guy. The present party. The present drink. The immediate satisfaction of filling the gaping hole in my life that was so rudely uncovered at eighteen. Does this not scream of the glittery existentialism we are so saturated in today?

YOLO.

Carpe Diem.

Live fast, die young.

This probably sounds more appealing to those still alive; the dead don’t have a voice to argue.

What about when we clothe the Carpe Diem mindset in more wisdom – shift the perspective from existentialism to mindfulness. The movement on mindful living is both positive and healthy. But I would argue that true mindfulness does not come simply from being present in each moment. I achieve true mindfulness when I reconcile my history. I pay the past its due respect in shaping my perspective so that I can have a more complete understanding and appreciation for my present.

My process isn’t perfect. It never will be perfect because the perfect process doesn’t exist. But I see my motives and my weaknesses much more clearly as a result of observing my previous tendencies. Now my pendulum still swings between tearful nostalgia and present mindfulness, but much less dramatically. With each trial the pendulum’s diameter becomes smaller and more centered. Less drama, less numbing, less escaping. More joy, more mindfulness, more freedom.

My Word for 2017: Adventure

I don’t do resolutions. I have a hard enough time getting things done on the daily. Picking up prescriptions, grocery shopping and depositing checks take a surprising amount of energy. After a day of errands and completing my to-do list I usually reward myself with a bowl of ice cream or disgustingly sweet milk tea. And resolutions are like REALLY big to-dos.

I paint in broader strokes. I like big ideas, big pictures. The details, I don’t care so much about. I’m pretty much the opposite of a micro-manager. I like strategy and I consider myself pragmatic – but at the end of the day, my life decisions are based largely on feeling and intuition.

A few years ago I heard an alternative to the tradition of New Years resolutions. Instead, I set an intention for the year – a single word to describe how I think the year will go, how I can purposely lean into the word, and how I can grow through the word in the year.

My word for 2017: A D V E N T U R E.

Because I am doing things I’ve never done before.

Because adventures are full of fun and laughter.

Because I am a risk-taker.

Because adventures contain an element of surprise – there is no knowing the future.

Because when I think of adventure, I think of the people I will adventure with.

Because adventures make great stories – and I’ve got a story to tell.

Because adventures can be scary, but I know the fear will pass with the next bend in the path.

Because I was made to stand tall in who I’m created to be, no matter the large trees casting shadows on the ground right now.

Because the adventurous life is hard, but the adventurous life is so good.


 

Photo Credit: Tamara Menzi

How I’m Learning to Thrive in the Wilderness

Let’s face it – 2016 was rough. As the year ends I’m learning not only how to survive the metaphorical wilderness of life, but also how to thrive in it.

My tendency in life is to skip past the wilderness — anything difficult, uncomfortable, and untraveled. I desire ease, comfort, and even self-preservation. The opposite of my natural instinct is to wander through the wilderness — to sit in pain, allow myself to feel the discomfort, and turn my life upside down on a path never tread. In time I am learning not merely to survive, but to find a way to thrive in life’s wilderness in a real, tangible way.

Modern civilization has been destroying wilderness — oceans, forests, deserts — for decades, as the human population increases and more value is placed on manicured lawns and climate controlled living spaces. Modern civilians like myself must learn a new way to wrestle with life in the midst of technology, distractions, and instant gratification. Maybe that’s why people who truly grew up on the land are intrinsically more in tune with the rhythms of life — birth, aging, death — because they have experienced life in unsterile environments, in their homes. In Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name, the indigenous people of Kingcome village in British Columbia seem to accept the wilderness of human life because their life is lived in the wilderness of nature: “Here every bird and fish knew its course. Every tree had its own place upon this earth. Only man had lost his way.”

Even in our collective confusion, there is something basic but undoubtedly beautiful about the wilderness.

Cherish your wilderness. — Maxine Kumin

Cheryl Strayed wrote her best-selling memoir, Wild, on exactly this experience. Her story of honesty, self-awareness, and self-love was made even more famous by the film starring Reese Witherspoon. Women of all ages find solace in the book — not because each of us has been on heroin binges or spent the night with an alluring Oregon man (cue Michiel Huisman). Cheryl Strayed’s experiences are wildly her own — but her spirit of longing and remembering herself, of conquering fear and choosing to trek through the forest for her salvation are wildly universal.

If you have never walked through a wilderness in your life, you likely don’t know what you’re made of. Consequently, if you have walked through wilderness in your life, you likely know exactly what you’re made of. You are weak and fragile, yet unwaveringly beautiful and strong.

While the wilderness, actual or metaphorical, is not a comfortable or cushy experience, it brings a unique peace. We experience moments of clarity along the path. After hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson writes, “I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn’t know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.” Life is brought back into perspective. Clarity comes when the crisp air hits our lungs at the top of a mountaintop or edge of a canyon. It’s cold as hell but it’s quiet and still.

This is the place where our never-ending cascade of thoughts and anxieties finally quiet themselves, in awe of the greatness of the mountain we are climbing. The largest mountains in our lives demand awe — without a realistic view, we could never climb them. Or maybe it’s the quiet place where we can finally hear our own voice in the stillness of the night. Where we can actually hear every fear and broken dream echoing in our minds. This is the place where we acknowledge the deepest pain and lost love, and allow it room to breathe so it no longer holds the power to suffocate. Cheryl says it perfectly:

How wild it was, to let it be.

So in this moment, if you find yourself in a treacherous wilderness, just breathe. Place one foot in front of the other, nurture yourself when you stumble, and shout from the mountaintops for each peak that you climb.


Photo Credit: unsplash.com