My Fractal Heart

It lives in uncountable pieces beating in international symphony, a trail laid down the East Coast and a cluster like Stonehenge alongside Lake Erie; dense in the Bay Area, a spiral jetty centered in Oakland and spun out to San Francisco and Marin and Santa Rosa, carried abroad to London and Japan, well-worn and treasured in Osaka — if I had any magic beyond metaphor I would render my fractal heart three-dimensional, for my best and badass friend B to hold in her dark moments and turn to her ear like a conch shell, that she might feel my voice whispering across the oceanic distance: you are beautiful, you are sufficient, i love you.

B is an engineer, American by way of immigrant parents from Nigeria and Sri Lanka, a woman living in a gendered and homogenous culture that insists she can only ever be an outsider and my meager transpacific words are so insignificant against the daily violence of her othering but they are all the comfort I can offer, a pulsing and regular reminder that she is not alone, that she carries a piece of me with her, always; that this piece of me only ever improves by her generous custody; that what I carry of her is precious and tangible and has sustained me so many times that to return the favor is not obligation or effort but reflex, my best and most delightful instinct.

I thought for a long time that to split my heart like this was a kind of undoing and there were those who demanded as much from me, who pried out shards and asked for my lungs too and then blamed me for running out of breath — I’ve only learned boundaries recently but they have saved my life and although I couldn’t see it at the time many of those who went fracking in the hidden corners of my chest gave me a great gift when they eventually left, the most brutal exit wound delivered just days before B flew into SFO so that she and I could road-trip to visit her sisters in Houston and New Orleans. We forgot to bring any music beside the lone CD already in the car and as the deserted desert interstate slipped away beneath us we played The Black Album over and over and B put her hand against my raw skin, held it there throughout the miles, and staunched the bleeding.

A heart can and must shatter, but it is a lie that it should be put back together; we are all built out of such wondrous geometry that each piece is its own whole and in love we can reconstitute from even the smallest, growing to fill what we’d only ever known as empty space.

*

Before so many of you revealed to me the resilient architecture of the heart I devoted myself to the myth of its protection, stubborn and proud of the vacuum chamber I’d built around my own to prevent its crumbling — this was another myth, of course, one that defined rupture in the narrowest terms of heteronormative romance so as to erase every other kind of damage, including the self-inflicted; and even the idea that I’d successfully dodged such a particular form of hurt was a lie, because the story of my teenage heartbreak was so innocent and sweet that I didn’t know how to locate it within my stoical self-image but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

His name was Stefon and he was a patient at the children’s rehabilitation hospital where I had just begun volunteering. Most of the other patients were younger but Stefon and I were both fifteen and he was cute and outgoing, newly wheelchair-bound, and he read me his poetry and knew Spite and Malice, the card game that I played with my grandma in her house where everything in the world that didn’t make sense could fade away. Seeing Stefon became my weekly highlight but I didn’t know what to do with my crush, because I was a volunteer and he was a patient, because I was a white girl from Cleveland Heights and he was a black boy from Cleveland, because I wanted to be tough and he made me feel soft; and then one day he told me he’d be going home soon, that next week would be our last. He asked for a kiss before I left and I pressed my lips to his cheek, not what he’d wanted but maybe next week, I told him, maybe next week there’d be something more. When next week came I arrived with some of my own writing to share, nervous because I hadn’t quite decided whether to kiss him or not but I thought that I might — but it was too late, he’d been sent home early, I’d missed him by a day, and we would never say our proper goodbye. One week after that my mother picked me up to take me back again and I lost it completely, there in the passenger seat, shouting and wailing and at the most absolute loss for language I’ve ever known; I couldn’t explain my refusal but it was so total that halfway to the hospital my mother finally relented and drove me home. I did go back the following week but I switched to data entry, the billing department a much less dangerous place, bereft of any boy’s wide and welcoming smile.

Two decades on it feels a bit silly to acknowledge how much of my life has been driven by the John Green novel I buried so deeply inside of it but it is the trite and cliched truth. My years of service were sculpted around a careful distance from relationship, as if by wielding a hammer to build and fix houses for those in need I could ensure that I might never find myself so overwhelmed by feeling as that teenager riding shotgun in her parents’ Ford. I was not entirely wrong — building those houses was appreciated but did not grant us full fellowship in all the tacos and lumpia and love that made them into homes — but my determined separateness was a delusion, too, for when I think about my first year of AmeriCorps and the possibility that the seven of us who served alongside one another might never be in the same place at the same time to laugh together again, well, my throat constricts with the same kind of grief I’d worked so diligently to avoid.

Love catches up to all of us, eventually.

If my totalizing experience of my own emotions moderated my relationship to service it did worse to my relationships with guys, already complicated by so much within culture and religion and family — like so many people marked girl at birth I had, by fifteen, lived most of my life convinced that I was simultaneously too much and not enough, a kind of Schrodinger’s Woman, and that day in the car seemed to prove every thesis about the stupidity and cupidity and futility of female feeling. It was motivated by more than just Stefon but by late high school the outline of my romantic identity was already forming, and it only hardened throughout college and my twenties: She Who Ghosts Any Sincere Dude, even when I actually liked him, even when the hookup was a fun one, even when all he did was send a vaguely earnest text message. My romantic incompetence became a theme in my stand-up set and my closing bit was a graphic and detailed discussion about how and where I might apply various flavors of Doritos to lure men in! — it was an unfailingly strong closer and once, when I stepped off the stage at a fundraiser for HIV/AIDS research, a cute guy with a sweet smile shyly offered me a plate of Doritos and I was so overwhelmed that I barely managed to blurt out “Thanks” before I literally turned and ran out of the venue like a goddamn cartoon character, throwing the chips in the trash along the way to freedom. The closest I’ve ever gotten to an actual relationship was a long-distance and drunken friends-with-benefits situation that waxed and waned over the years, although in retrospect “friends” may be overstating the case, because friends don’t talk other friends out of safe sex. I wanted him to care enough to use protection, especially when I told him that my birth control was interrupted, but it was the fact that he didn’t which made me comfortable enough to keep going back — the inevitable pregnancy scare sucked for a couple days, sure, but it was also finite and solvable, much less alarming and entangling than anything like affection.

I’ve been working very hard to become a better person and I don’t enjoy recalling the ways I used to be a self-defeating jackass and for years I kept this all secret, locked inside dark corridors in my memory chalet, but those doors were thrown wide open this summer in an unexpected friendship that left me uninterested in my own shame, something so torrid and reckless and brief that the only narratives to understand it are flings and affairs. Women in their mid-thirties aren’t supposed to trust other women so easily or show their enthusiasm for each other so baldly but a new-to-me coworker showed up one day, returned just for a short summer back from graduate school, and the connection was instantaneous so we dove into intimate places immediately, there in full earshot of the public; the piece of my heart that she carries now, back at school, may be the fastest I’ve ever parted with, and it was a joy to give away. Making new friends at this age feels riskier and weirder than ever and in the effort I’ve sent email overtures to two separate colleagues — to one, a twelve-hundred-word stream-of-consciousness discussion of decolonialist theory and to the second the single exclamatory sentence “LETS BE FRENNNNNNNSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!” — so I’m as clumsy as I’ve ever been but the older I get the less embarrassed I am by any of it and the more I realize we’re all just bruised and scared and marching inexorably towards our own demise, and what the fuck else can we possibly do except take care of each other in the meantime?

*

My anxieties around romantic coupledom did not prevent me from longing for partnership, but what I daydreamed after was a creative one, a collaboration like Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, or Morgan and Wong. The first time I did stand-up it was a theme night about high school and that I wasn’t the only Catholic schoolgirl from Ohio at the Etiquette Lounge on Market Street felt like fate; Kelly and I met up soon after at the San Francisco library to see if we could write together and the rhythm of our sketches moved swiftly from tentative to assured, to a place where we could send each other three-word emails (“Reverse Dangerous Minds,” “Ladyservant Fart Story”) and spin the other’s concept into the kind of socially incisive comedy we had separately dreamed of crafting, but hadn’t quite managed until we worked together. Our partnership built beautiful things but we were also rooted in our own self-destructive habits and combined they brought down the feminist sketch comedy group in which we’d invested so much effort, the online humor magazine we’d run together, and very nearly our friendship itself — when I moved to LA four years ago it was with a question mark in place, and as I began to seriously face my own shit in order to capably care for my niece and nephew the gap between us only grew.

But life and love are unpredictable things. Kelly hit her own bottom and went to rehab to begin the difficult work of recovery and from that courageous and self-loving choice our relationship rearranged itself completely, from teetering to flourishing, now one of the most gorgeous and durable features of my emotional landscape, the piece of my heart that she holds forever safe in her steady embrace.

Accountability is love. I know this from Kelly and I’m striving to apply it myself, to my own vulnerabilities, to the way I am building my life here in Los Angeles — it’s been four years but the first two were spent in isolated caring for twin babies and the next one found me stymied by illness, an unshakeable upper respiratory condition that became, at various points, pneumonia and severe bronchitis, then a bad bout of depression triggered by Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, the worst experience I had with it since my own suicidal ideation five years previously; climbing out took time and I’ve been chased by panic attacks ever since, a habit I thought I might have left behind as my private Bay Area torture but which I find myself navigating here, hundreds of miles away, starting my life anew at thirty-five. All the critiques I used to read of LA in Mike Davis and the Harvard Design Magazine are true enough and amidst the atomization of car culture and sprawl I haven’t even been able to rely on the passive sociability of public transportation to make friends, to find elderly concert buddies or just a conversational partner. Creative collaboration has been a challenge too, not because creative people are hard to find but because everyone here is on their own hustle, a universe unto themselves, uncompelled by the likes of “Ladyservant Fart Story.” Nonetheless I like LA and I’m committed to sticking it out, to remaking bad old habits into better ones, to continue to break my own heart in the secure knowledge that whatever pieces I might give away only offer new space for the rest to grow into. I had a massive panic attack at work in June and for two hours tried to clamp down unsuccessfully on my anxiety until finally I thought I might die if I didn’t tell someone what was happening so I reached out to the shift lead, someone I barely knew, and she spent an hour talking me back into myself with more gentleness and patience than I have ever earned.

A few days later I had another one, shorter but still more intense, again in front of someone I barely knew. We had to get going and historically I would have always taken the wheel, reasserted my sense of control over the world with eighty-five miles per hour of grim white-knuckled tension, but he offered to drive and I let him, I let him drive, I accepted someone’s help rather than pretending that Actually, I Am Fine, because we’d both seen my mess and we both knew that Actually, I Was Not Really Fine, and I am beginning to recognize that it’s okay to be that way sometimes. He reached for my keys and I handed them over and a piece of my heart, too, as I find trustworthy places here in LA where I might lay these cairns that point towards home.

*

I am still so new at all this. It has been almost four years now of actually feeling my feelings instead of hiding them inside dick jokes and structural analysis and flan and it is still amateur hour but I am learning, learning how to apologize for my bad actions without blaming myself for everything wrong in the world or considering myself the worst problem of all, learning how to draw and maintain healthy boundaries, learning how to ask for what I need and to understand that I am allowed to have needs. At some point recently I also stopped hating my body, a forgiveness which I recommend to everyone; I realized how much effort and energy I was expending trying to fit myself into an oppressive hierarchy, how chasing thinness and aesthetic perfection as if I might be rewarded with a functional and lovely life was preventing me from doing the work of functioning and loving just as I was and am, and I knew the falseness of such promised reward because I’ve been thin and while the compliments and lingering stares were nice enough I was miserable within my anorexia, claustrophobic inside of a life devoted to nothing more than making myself smaller.

Every body deserves dignity and care, connection and contact. To consider the need for human touch is to dangle precariously on the point between Too Much and Not Enough and everywhere I go I end up notorious for my high-fives — as a volunteer manager they were my most potent tool — because I have found them the ideal Cool Girl solution to the dilemma of Schrodinger’s Woman, fun and undemanding where hugs are earnest and sincere; I am still figuring out how to ask for the hugs that I need but I’ve also come a long way from the days when I used to fall asleep at parties because the existential pressures of living alone for the first time left me so insomniac that for eight months straight I only slept three or four hours each night, unless I could find myself surrounded by the comforting presence of a crowd. If I hadn’t spent so many years determinedly teaching myself to distrust any guy who could have cared for me I might have been able to find a more reliable solution than “pass out on the most comfortable surface you can find at a party” but hindsight is twenty-twenty and there were so many things I misunderstood then — not just the structure of my own heart but the premise of your kindness, too, all the generosity I was too afraid to acknowledge because I thought if I did then you might finally notice your error, as if your compassion were some kind of fragile spell that I was in danger of breaking with my desperate gratitude. I thought if I cooked meals spectacular enough or told jokes funny enough or martyred myself hard enough to the cause then I might earn what I could not see you were offering freely all along, a piece of your heart in trade for a piece of mine, both of us — all of us — growing together in relationship and mutual care.

It is ridiculously belated, but: thank you.

I can diagnose the origin of my mistaken beliefs well enough and at great length, running through colonialism and patriarchy and white supremacy and heteronormativity and ableism and consumerism and late-stage digital surveillance capitalism and the particular ways each warps our capacity for connection and humanity, the way they foreclose fellowship and render relationship suspect and dangerous. Most of this blog traffics in just such criticism and though it clarifies the systems and mechanisms of our surroundings it offers no real way forward, but the answer is obvious and well-worn, proffered by hooks and Baldwin and Lorde and a whole genealogy of marginalized thinkers: love, radical love, the only thing that can ever rescue us from ourselves; not the insipid politesse of a suburban white Jesus but the dirty brown radicalism of someone throwing the money-lenders from the temple, love that does not offer comfort or shelter but burns with the wild fire of fierce and transformative potential, love that does not hide behind fear, love that always shows up.

This love is my project now; it’s yours too, whether you know it or not, the only purpose that any of us can ever really have in life anyway. It might look a lot like foolishness sometimes, but you have shown it to me too well for me to ever disbelieve its value.

*

The work of such love can feel insubstantial in our particular political moment, when we are instructed to take a stand, to fight, to call out and cut off, to do anything but love our enemies — in this framing love is not a challenge but an acquiescence, a tacit approval, a weakness. Yet the most extreme reactionary in my own life was a sensitive and approval-seeking boy who has sought refuge in right-wing politics as an adult precisely to escape his own perceived weakness; it was persistent bullying which brought him to disavow his own capacity for vulnerable love, and I am not persuaded that more bullying will help him to recover it. He and I used to talk about real things but now when the rare opportunity for conversation arises he slides past so quickly that I hardly have time to pick up the piece of my heart he has cast aside and deposit it back into his pocket, perhaps a hopeless gesture but perhaps a doorstop, holding open the possibility that his gentler self might one day return.

The pressure to be taken seriously by the world can drive all of us to hurt, ourselves as readily as one another. As far back as I can remember I was Phil’s Sister wherever I went, younger and more frivolous and less necessary than my big brother; he was a genius and I was just there, uncertain whether such judgment was because I was younger and female or whether it was a true reflection of my relative ability. The former possibility enraged me and the latter terrified me so I sided with my anger and determined to show the world at large that I was every bit the intellectual equal of my older sibling, and my sophomore year of high school the proving ground for this exercise of my life’s most desperate ambition revealed itself to me: the California Institute of Technology, Caltech, a school that I came to imagine as my salvation. When they called with news of my acceptance it was blissful validation but by the end of my first day I was crying under a cold shower, unable to reconcile myself to the magnitude of my miscalculation. I don’t remember much of the math and physics that I failed and barely passed, respectively, but my year at Caltech did offer one enduring and unexpected lesson — not in any science but in the operation of power and privilege, that they protect one another, that a young woman’s future is something they are all too willing to sacrifice in their own perpetuation. It was a useful and armoring lesson, insulating me against future shocks when the power and privilege bore names like Brett Kavanaugh or Brock Turner or my own step-grandfather — repetition is reifying and the devaluation of young women’s futures against the reputations of Serious Men is inscribed in all our bones now, mine and yours and society’s, and we cannot fracture them fast enough.

In 2008 I returned to Caltech as if to cement my failure, working part-time at twelve dollars an hour for the alumni office, squatting in a basement music practice room with no windows and padded walls and a clock which ran backwards — downright Kafka-esque, as I described it later in stand-up, leaving me to check each morning if I’d developed a chitinous exoskeleton. I thought three months of such fugitive humiliation would be the denouement to the folly of my youthful ambition but five years later my brother the world-renowned cosmologist got a job offer there, alongside my sister-in-law the world-renowned exoplanet hunter. They bought a house and started a family and I was so broken-down and burnt by the betrayals of the Bay, spurned by a city that had promised progressive livability but become hostage to the totalizing economic accelerations of tech-driven wealth and disillusioned by a decade of nonprofit work in which I discovered just how thoroughly change is beholden to funders and philanthropy rather than need and care, that I swallowed my anxiety and my pride and asked if I couldn’t be the full-time nanny they were seeking for my newborn niece and nephew. The place where I had once meant to prove my greatness against my brother became instead the place where he paid me to bring his children to visit his corner office, where I introduced myself to everyone I met as Phil’s Sister.

Irony: it’s more than just a literary device.

In the two years of my domestic employment my brother’s department faced its own negotiation with power and privilege; the circumstances were different from my experience but many of the Serious Men around him sought to make the same choices yet my brother persisted in forging a new course, believing instead that the future of two young women might matter at least as much as the reputation of another Serious Man. It was a long and wearying process, as it must be when bones are broken and reset, but a necessary injury.

Maybe being taken seriously by the world is not so important, after all.

Maybe I am lucky to be Phil’s Sister.

*

Whenever I march or protest or participate in any political action these days it is in the same shirt: a brown striped polo, inherited from my cousin David. In the bygone days of the Bush era David found meaning and purpose in anti-war protest and his involvement in Food Not Bombs seemed to calm his ambient rage and in a different world David would be a celebrity of the online left for punching more Nazis than anyone else but in this world I wear his shirt because it is warmer than any piece of his heart I might have held onto all this time, ever since he took a piece of my own into the ground with him.

David would punch more Nazis than anyone else, but David is not here to punch Nazis.

I am not so arrogant as to think that I could have saved my little cousin’s life; addiction is a complicated thing and David’s hurts were very real. But I still wonder if he knew what he carried, if as he struggled to stay sober he ever felt the warmth of my fractal heart beating there against his own, or if perhaps my geographical distance and emotional enclosure stilled its rhythm to something too dim to recognize. I know well from my own grappling with the darkness how even the smallest sliver of kindness can become a lifeline and if my seriousness is Not Enough and my openness is Too Much it is because I spent my twenty-seventh birthday tattooing my dead cousin’s initials onto the skin over my cracked ribs and hollow chest, nine years ago to the day of posting this, and that ink was a contract and a promise that I am only now figuring out how to fulfill; because a love that is truly fierce and fearless must dwell in honesty and vulnerability, must be able to cry and keep vigil as easily as it can throw a punch, or else that love might not be able to survive.

In the wake of David’s death I have become closer and closer with his younger sister Marie — David and I had enjoyed Anthony Bourdain together and when I was knocked back into mournful depression by his suicide it was Marie that I texted for reminiscence and shared memory. Her year of AmeriCorps service was partly inspired by the joy I took in mine and now she’s setting up her own environmental organization and I’m so fucking impressed by the extraordinary person she’s becoming and already is, so proud to have her in my life as not just a cousin but a friend, and the closeness we’ve found in the years since her brother disappeared from life has not redeemed his death (nothing can) but since we both must live in its shadow how else to move forward except hand in hand? Punches can be useful and even necessary but a closed fist makes a lonely hero, and as we stand against incipient fascism and catastrophic climate change let us not repeat the same isolating habits which have brought us to this precipice but remake ourselves in the knowledge and experience of those who have already faced and beat back their own extinction, the black and the indigenous and the disabled and the queer, whose fugitive survival and triumph grows not from severance but from invitation, from kinship and community and relationship, from the kaleidoscopic possibility and emancipatory power of intimacy and care.

This is hard and scary work, harder and scarier than any math or physics, but I have had enough ghosts in my life and I am no longer interested in running away but in walking with — and if your soft fractal heart is not yet ready for such fearful exposure then let me reciprocate the gift that you have given me so many times over and invite you to borrow mine. It is there in your hand already, alive, tender, waiting; a piece, but a whole.

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