My optimism was the reason I had stayed in abusive situations as well as my catalyst for leaving.
The first garden I ever really tended to, I planted with an ex-partner. We’d spent several weekend mornings tilling and nurturing a small plot in my backyard, transforming the soil from arid and unkempt to rich and fecund. Upon harvesting, we filled a large basket with robust vegetables: chards, bright magenta-colored beets, green-leaf lettuce, cherry tomatoes, Anaheim peppers. I was most excited with the constant supply of tomatoes, amazed we’d started the produce from seeds and yielded such healthy plants.
Months later it became obvious that the garden was flourishing but the relationship was ending. I realized that after years of single motherhood, I’d allowed myself to attach to an emotionally abusive person out of loneliness.
When the relationship ended, I was bedridden for three months, falling deep into a clinical depression. Whenever I’d get up, my head felt dizzy, my thinking dulled and lagging. I was unable to keep up with my full-time job and just let it fade away, hoping my savings was enough until I was well again. In the mornings, I would struggle to get my daughter ready for school and I’d return from the bus stop exhausted.
The Shame of Mourning
The garden was forgotten. I couldn’t bear to weed or water, and every plant became shriveled and dry. Winter was approaching and as the cold settled in, I’d look out into the backyard from the window and watch the dead plants swaying with the freezing winds. As painful as it was, I felt stronger letting something we’d tended together die, as if in that letting go I was reminding myself that it had been only temporary, the needing anyone so badly.
“You need to let go of him and focus on your daughter.” This was the constant advice I received from well-meaning friends. As a single mother, I always found it strange how policed my emotions were by others when it came to any romantic endeavors, how shamed I would be for mourning anyone at all.
I’d already known heartbreak, had mothered alone when my baby was only one. I didn’t need the reminder; single moms know well how to mitigate their sadness and still nourish their babies. Although I’d known it before, the depression had never taken hold of me so fiercely. I realized I was mourning more than losing a partner, or the aftermath of emotional abuse; I was also far away from the writing career I’d always imagined I’d have. And I was finally feeling the deep pain I had buried when my relationship with my daughter’s father ended. Even then, I’d been shamed for my sadness and advised to focus on my child.
It was a difficult winter, alone in my thoughts. I remember wishing there was a way someone could crawl into my mind and cradle it, almost like holding my hand to lead me out of my sadness. I didn’t even know what clinical depression was, though I realized I had experienced episodes over the years. I remember sitting blankly, staring at the grimy walls of a community mental health clinic where I was finally prescribed antidepressants.
A month after that, I was taking regular runs again, a practice I used to love. My stamina returned and the body that had shriveled up all winter grew robust and strong.
The following spring, I finally gathered enough intention to walk down the deck and face the garden. Pulling out the shriveled roots, I felt ashamed at my neglect. When I’d finished clearing the space, I watered and turned the soil, taken with how rich it had become. I sat in silence and thought about how that reflected inward, as well. The pain and solitude had alchemized me and what had sat inside that whole winter was now made anew.
Years later, I’m sitting in my therapist’s office. She’s white, Midwest-born and raised. I hadn’t planned on having a white therapist, but when I’d filled out the preference form I only checked off “woman.” She had an optimism I appreciated, and I didn’t feel especially inclined to inquire whether she was aware just how much of that optimism came from her privilege. I saw parts of myself reflected in her personality. One of the more painful aspects of my internal calcination was accepting how hopeful I’ve always tended to be, even despite the harm I would seek out. My optimism was the reason I had stayed in abusive situations as well as my catalyst for leaving. I’d hope it would get better and once I saw it wouldn’t, I’d hope a doorway would appear.
My career was now in motion. I was dumbfounded by the task of negotiating a book contract without an agent and didn’t know how to proceed. I’d written and performed largely for free for my entire career and was realizing that I was afraid to ask for a substantial sum because I still struggled with my own self-worth.
A Reluctant Astronaut
“Did you send the email?”
“I didn’t. Not yet, I just, don’t want to seem off-putting, you know? What if I ask for too much and they rescind their offer?”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said. “They approached you.”
I cradled my head in my hands. “I don’t know how to do this. No one taught me about money. All of this is new. I’m navigating this alone and there’s no map, no manual.”
“You know what you are?”
I looked up.
“You’re a reluctant astronaut. That’s what my mom called me and my sisters when we were afraid. You have the ability to travel through the universe, and you’re afraid to get in the captain’s seat. You’ve trained, you’re ready. You’ve got to get out there for all those who didn’t get the chance, and more so for those who will.”
I blinked back tears. A reluctant astronaut. In all my life, no one had ever said anything even remotely close to those words, that concept.
“You’ve got to send that email.”
I realized how much her words had struck me. The queer daughter of first-generation parents, I was told that I would not be allowed to leave home for college. My older brothers were encouraged to exercise their freedom while I stayed in my hometown and worked while I went to school. I could only move out when I found a husband. I wasn’t taught I was a reluctant astronaut. Instead, I was tethered to the ground from birth.
I wondered what would have been of me had I been encouraged to fly.
There are times when I have to leave my daughter, now ten years old. Sometimes she’ll watch me pack, her eyes heavy.
“Mommy, don’t go. I get scared when you’re far away, scared you won’t return.”
I don’t tell her I’m afraid, too. I’m not afraid that I won’t return, but that I won’t get to leave at all.
I need her to be brave for both of us. She’s now old enough to understand she’s a reluctant astronaut, too. I want to make this natural for us, how sometimes I’ll have to go sit in the captain’s chair and close the hatch, home becoming small as a pin before fading out.