I used to fall asleep without praying. For decades, I would crawl into bed, arrange my pillows into a fluffy mountain to keep my head elevated all night, turn immediately onto my side with my legs curled in sort of a tree pose, and drift off to a choppy dreamland often marked by sugarplum dreams dosed slightly with acid. There was something comforting about getting into bed and just being done. Though my mind would often spin with unanswered questions and unrequited longings, those thoughts were never linear and they certainly weren’t planned out and there was a freedom to my nighttime ritual I wish I could reclaim. Because the thing is, I don’t quite know what happened or even when it happened, but I pray every single night now and it takes me a while to do and, rather than feeling quieted by my prayers, they cause nocturnal anxiety. I think it’s probably that my prayers, though coated with gratitude, are also motivated by fears I spend all day pretending are not there. I speak of my family and my wishes for them and I ask for safety and protection for all of us and I pepper my words with a request that those I care about will be alleviated from whatever ails them. I pray that those I loved who have passed on are at peace and that they are together in a spiritual stratosphere I’m not even sure I believe exists, and I end with thoughts of appreciation. All of it is done in my head; I do it whether I’m alone in my bed or not, and I never really talk about it with anyone – about how I feel like I have to do it now, about the way it’s almost become a superstition, about how I’m not even sure it helps anything, about the way I’ve convinced myself it cannot possibly hurt.
If I prayed for you at one point, you probably remain in my nightly thoughts. I’ve never been all that good at the process of elimination.
It seems there are things about me that cannot be changed, but then there are the things that can. How I live has changed. I used to live in a home defined by clutter. A master of mess and visual chaos, the table next to my bed would more often than not be covered with glasses and mugs and partially sipped bottles of water. It’s nothing short of humiliating to admit now, but it wasn’t at all uncommon back then for some of those glasses to have particles of mold floating on top of remnants of room temperature iced tea – and still it would take me several days to carry the cups populated with suddenly-living particles the short distance to my kitchen. I had piles of laundry that always needed to be done and expired cheese sitting in my refrigerator. Stacks of Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly magazines were piled on coffee tables like I was about to embark on an illustrious career in decoupage. At one point, a long-distance boyfriend I adored was coming to visit, but I only prepared for his arrival in, shall we say, a cerebral way. Outfits had been selected. Dinner reservations were made. And I began crafting lists detailing which rooms I’d tackle and in what order and all the things that had to be dusted or thrown away so my beloved could arrive and not run fleeing from the idea of a future with me simply because of the condition of my living room. I tended to underestimate back then how long it would take to properly complete a task – especially one, like scrubbing tiles, I was not at all skilled at – but I figured twelve hours would be ample time to get things done and I swore I would begin the very next morning, right after I returned from celebrating a holiday with some of my family in New Jersey. And then, like a fucking night terror that turned out to be real, my boyfriend texted just as I was arriving in New Jersey to say he’d left a day early and he wanted to surprise me! He’d be at my house in eight hours! He couldn’t wait for me to drag my nails across his back, and delightful though that all seemed, not even my nails had been properly filed, though that task had been written clearly on one of my many lists. So what happened? Well, I careened into my sister’s driveway, ran inside, thrust a dessert I’d baked into her arms, blurted out words like mess, vacuum, and relationship-hanging-in-the-balance, and then I ran back out the door to drive the three hours home to New York like a hysterical banshee so I could do my best to clean the shower and mop the floors and change the sheets and hide the piles of laundry and run to the supermarket and take out the garbage and file my fucking nails. I pulled it off – of course I did. It was like how I used to wait until the day it was due to write a 20-page research paper and still I’d walk away with an A, but something about the frenzy of that evening felt nothing like a rush. All I felt was failure. I was an adult and living this way was an exercise in total bullshit, so I changed from who I used to be and the change was fast and I haven’t wavered since. Need proof? Just a couple of weeks ago, someone I’m into texted that he was going to drop by. I looked quickly around my house. With a wave of total satisfaction, I knew the only thing that needed cleaning up was me because that guy has got himself some really fun fetishes, but a girl wearing sweaty workout clothing is not yet one of them.
Speaking of men, I used to be a bit inhibited when I’d roll around with them in bed. I’m not quite sure what was behind the shyness, but I wonder now if my earliest experiences were spent with people who stayed quiet enough that I could never be sure if what I was doing or how I was bending was working in the way those terrible articles in Cosmo that I read while getting pedicures swore that they would. It wasn’t until later, until I became vocal myself, that sex became better. It wasn’t until the rest of me turned brave in the world that I took some risks in the bedroom. It wasn’t until someone ceded control that I realized how much I could sometimes enjoy something like that. And it wasn’t until I met a man who so willingly shared his fantasies with me that I didn’t even have to fake it.
Outside of the bedroom, though, I used to wonder if I could ever be enough for someone else. The question was a concoction of poisonous projection I wouldn’t even want my enemies to sip. Included in this spicy froth were inner rumblings about the logic behind the possibilities of forevers and the knowledge that human beings always seem to end up destroying one another while we continue to destroy ourselves. Then there was this little issue: I’d always been told I was funny and humor was an undeniable part of my draw, but what if I told my stories too many times and the hilarity eventually dripped out of me like an unfortunate wet spot? What if I allowed my life and my adventures to stall and there were no new stories to pad out my repertoire? Though I can’t say this fear of mine has completely been put to rest, I’ve attempted to combat it – and I am fucking vigilant. I keep a switch in my head. That switch flickers like a seizure-inducing spotlight when I find myself growing complacent and that’s when I introduce something new to my life, like learning the guitar or starting Pilates or binging a new show I figure I can analyze over appetizers with an impressive bit of flair. I used to say I was endlessly searching for someone I found endlessly interesting, but one day I recognized that I’d only find that perfect male unicorn if I stayed endlessly interesting myself. And though I’m not there yet, I do feel that flicker starting to pulse more and more and I can only hope it doesn’t manifest in me taking boxing classes because I’d really like to become more interesting in a way that doesn’t cause me to sweat. Besides, there are far too many people I know who deserve a bit of a beating and it’s probably wise for me to never develop that sort of capability. Perhaps I’ll just learn to knit and we can all be safe.
But my biggest change from what I used to do involves blame. I used to blame myself for a lot. I’d always seek to discover my own complicity in a situation, and though that’s still something I do, I no longer accept all complicity. It used to feel easier that way. Recognizing frailties in others and the way people had cut and then scarred the softest parts of me caused anger to simmer and that simmering felt unnatural and far too consuming. The bubbling of the anger caused me to replay conversations in my mind and reorchestrate them in a way I’d never be able to actually achieve in real life. Having a super cutting comeback in retrospect did nothing but wreck me, but nothing was as devastating as contemplating every single thing I could have done differently so my eventual anger would never have had even a chance to form.
And then it was a rainy day a while back and I saw something glisten on my own mental horizon. It was a warning, it was constructed out of sparkly awareness, and it told me wordlessly that I didn’t have to consume all the blame in order to ward off all of the anger. I just didn’t have to feel any anger, certainly not with myself if I wasn’t the cause of it. To achieve this mindset and not have it just be a fortune cookie-type saying someone will eventually stick on a tee, I had to understand some things that were hard to accept. See, it turns out that some people simply aren’t very good people and I should stop barraging myself for not immediately believing in walking evil. Some people get off on causing pain, but I’ll no longer question why my mind is not wired in the same questionable way. I was raised to believe forgiveness is a necessary component of life and, as I grew, I chose to hide some of my feelings from myself to achieve that forgiveness, but that part of me has since died and I didn’t even go to the funeral. To mourn it would cause me to compromise myself, and that’s the sort of thing I used to do.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life seeking to resolve my past so as to better navigate my present, and the self-reflective part of me will never change. I don’t want to alter that piece of myself. I’m proud of my willingness to delve into what was so I can float on my back into what will be. Doing that sort of thing honestly is not easy and it’s often not any fun, but eventually you arrive at a moment where there is no further resolution you alone can make with your past. So rather than just spin in mental circles like I used to do, I choose to use that energy differently now and forge my future.
I didn’t used to do any of that. And I definitely used to be of the mindset that people couldn’t really change, but that conviction has gone the way of my moldy mess and the choice to stay on my back during sex. Because while some people probably can and will never change, it doesn’t mean I have to be one of them.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter