When you just survive your childhood, you don’t learn the growing up skills that your contemporaries do. You don’t learn how to be funny because funny might offend. You don’t learn how to be outspoken because outspoken might mean trouble. You don’t learn to try and fail because failure isn’t an option.
You don’t learn your value, you learn to accomplish and to look up for approval. You learn to keep quiet unless the thing you have to say will benefit the people around you.
So you push. You stick to something practical. You create your own space. And you find your own happy. Often that happy is enhanced by making others happy. By treating people the way you want to be treated.
But I never learned how to cope with toxicity. I learned how to fight against it. I would try to remedy or rectify or redesign and, if all of that didn’t work, I would run away. Fight then flight.
When you just survive your childhood, your lifeline is the black and white of your brain’s moral compass: good or bad. Right or wrong. Yes or no.
But, what to do when flight isn’t an option? You never learn living in purgatory. In the in-between.
When you just survive your childhood, you spend enough time playing pretend, convincing everyone—even yourself—that it’s okay, that, when you grow up, you can’t imagine pretending for another second. You seek people like you. People who want to build the kind of life you’ve been dreaming about since you were old enough to dream. And, some mornings, you wake up before the sun only to whisper to your youngest self , you found the one to build it with.
But, even when you plan and execute, and dream, there are things you can’t control for (no matter how hard you try). When you just survive your childhood, you try to control for everything. So that, when you have children, you can give them the everything you needed. You still need, some days.
So that, in your adulthood, you can rebuild a foundation strong enough to hold both you and your imagination. You give. Deeply. Desperate for a return, from the people of your adult life. Afraid to repeat a past you didn’t pick. Some pandemics are international and some are internal. In both you learn to survive.
But, when you just survive your childhood, you do things in the wrong order. You give before it is deserved, you fight harder than you’re supposed to. You don’t understand when things don’t work out. You create simple expectations and tack value to them: If I get the lead, people love me, If I get straight A’s I’m going to live in New York someday, If I run eight miles people will think I’m beautiful. If they call, they apologize, they wear burgundy, we matter. Arbitrary but everything. Everything but arbitrary.
And, without the skills to better pretend, your sleeves are bright red and thumping with every heartbeat. You’re inside out. Your palms are scarred. It’s a big deal.
When you just survive your childhood, you’re used to being misunderstood. To people forgetting that you’re a person. In fact, you know they will (but you hope they won't). They will forget that you have feelings if they don’t love you. And maybe this is just the value you’ve tacked to it. But that’s your truth. That’s everything. You don’t know how to have boundaries, how to give a little, how to pretend.
And to learn diminishes you--
Diminishes everything you’ve survived.
You have brought more confusion, chaos, heart-ache, healing, drama, peace, promise, love, loss, laughter, than a year should. But, when I struggle, most, to wrap my head around it, I focus on the good. On all that is still standing. I am grateful. For cuddle breaks, new recipes, new students, the way it sounds to say husband and wife, the magic of finding a new rhythm, as a new us.
You brought a perfect weekend and, with it, a million memories. Thank you for the kind of weather I had never imagined, a world of people who did everything to make sure the evening went off without a hitch and so many of the everythings we dreamed up.
Dear Scrapbook Paper,
You made advisory better, my activities livelier, and place settings more Pinterest-perfect!
Thank you for dancing in the kitchen, for singing the greatest co-MOH speech in the history of speeches (autotune and all), and for all of the ways we are alike and all of the ways we differ. I don't know how I got so lucky.
Dear Cinnamon Tea,
Thank you for being warm and comforting. No matter the time.
Thank you for being the greatest officiant a girl could ask for. And, even more, for being my brother in New York. For dinner dates and late night chats. I am so grateful you are here.
Thank you for teaching me what is real and true. For showing me, again, what I ignored the first time.
Thank you for keeping my secrets.
Thank you for marrying me. For the first kiss of my dreams. For being my partner in this crazy life. Together, we can do anything. I know that. Always.
My brother moved to New York! Now there are two hazel eyes, pointy-chinned ballabusters pounding the pavement. On our first Sunday together, we initiated Sunday brunches with two special guests! Our Baltimore babes!
A bagel board, mimosas, and our sweet rooftop getaway; with the view of lady liberty and a bee that just wouldn't quit. And then, even when Shira and Gabe drove back to Baltimore, Ben just walked back to his Manhattan apartment. I don't know if that will ever get old--knowing that my brother is just across the bridge! That all of the plans we want to make don't have an expiration date but can come and go as they please. What a gift, to have family around.
For our friend's wedding, we brought the wedding cake.
Three tiers, ten layers. Champagne and vanilla cake, homemade peach and raspberry jam, and delicate swiss meringue buttercream. Gold luster-dust, in the shape of a heart, with the initials of two of our favorite people. A precious cake topper with their shared name regally scrolled.
A magical ceremony, with a Chuppah draped in dreamy cream-colored fabric and romantic flowers. The same flowers that hugged the cake. Vows lined with Friends references and punctuated by tears and laughter.
A year of wedding disappointments, after a New Years Eve that was so full of hope and wonder. We dressed as flappers and told ourselves that everything was possible. Days before Covid, there were saki bombs, sushi and free birthday cheesecake. And when Covid hit, we became HouseParty friends. Commiserating together for all of the things we had to cancel and postpone. Shared butterflies and eye-rolls.
Where we had to cancel, they postponed. Saving their Big Fat Greek Wedding for 2021 and having an intimate Jewish ceremony in 2020. Her parents backyard on a Friday night; the break of the glass, the signing of the ketubah (where we were the witnesses)!
So we take the tiny victories: the air was crisp and whispered tales of fall. Love that conquers all. Oopahs and champagne cheers, To the bride and groom, to the bride and groom, to the bride and groom.
I'm no professional--but it was baked with love! Congratulations, sweet friends.
I should have known...
When the Bay Street Theatre’s season seemed too good to be true
When we finally found the perfect venue
When we cheered to the “best year ever” on New Years Eve
When I bought most of our personalized wedding goods on Cyber Monday, in 2019
When we spent a year unpacking other people’s awkward silences
When our kitchen was large enough to fit all of our appliances
When I found everything I wanted for our Registry
When I wanted to bake our wedding cake
When no one would apologize
When I started to enjoy exercising and making friends
When I left a toxic workplace
When I found the perfect dress
When we started talking about the future
When I wrote our plans, in permanent marker, in my wedding binder
When we let ourselves get excited
When we found all of our perfect vendors
When I started my countdown 427 days before the wedding
When I got four job offers
When I did my own calligraphy
When I read about the Jewish Wedding now
When we picked our first dance song
…That the world would need to regain equilibrium eventually. You can’t find your soulmate, live happily ever after and have a fairytale wedding. But I would gladly give up the fairytale wedding for the life we hold in our hands. So dearly.
There are great cliches about people with a history of disordered eating. One, of course, is that food becomes very important to them. With my history, food has always been at the root of my experiences.
My father didn't eat. And if we did, as kids, he would say You ate yesterday and our hungry bellies would drop. Food became taboo. So much so, I vividly remember being five and almost choking on a hotdog so I could eat it before my father caught me. I remember being four and my father counting the ice cream sandwiches in the freezer and being punished for eating them. I remember being older and hiding in the pantry to eat. When food is a crime, you don't care what you put into your mouth, every morsel is a tiny revolution.
It wasn't only food, though, it was what food could do. Food had the power to nourish and comfort but it also made you wider in the hips and filled cheeks with color. When I look back on pictures of myself in middle school, I'm a stranger to myself. My whole perception of myself given to the loudest voice in the room, I would cup my belly fat in my hands and hate myself for it. I would believe flabby, fatty. It was true that I would be beautiful if I was skinny. And, pretty soon, the only voice louder becomes the one in your head. The one that only repeats the worst thoughts. And so I stopped eating. I only let myself indulge in Weight Watchers approved foods, I learned how to make myself throw up. I got so dehydrated and malnourished I fainted in Las Vegas and, when I came to, I was afraid the IV would make me fatter. I took sodium pills because I wouldn't eat anything with salt on it. Those pictures, now, are of a girl who was only as fat and ugly as she let herself believe. My arms, which I hated, were thin. My belly, which I thought made me an ogre, was just human.
And that became my first foray into cooking: control. If I made it, I knew what was in it. I did not eat to enjoy, I ate to punish. Because I had known food only to lead to punishment. The Saturdays spent being bullied into eating tomatoes, my least favorite food, and--when I couldn't stomach it--being punished. I was the fatty who couldn't eat the healthy foods my father wanted me to eat. On Saturdays, my parents would go out for lunch. It was really the only time my father ate and it was the only time, as a child, I remember my parents really spending time together. Getting to go out for lunch with them was a glimpse into a teasingly normal family dynamic. And so I would do try my best. I would work on the times tables and coax my gag reflex into swallowing the mushy, seedy, tomatoes. But, often, I failed. I would be left at the windowsill, watching the car drive away, hysterical. I had failed. I was a failure. A fat, ugly, failure.
I would starve myself and wait for my father to compliment me. He never did.
But, when I moved to New York, I thought food and I were liberated. It wasn't simple as that; I spent a lot of time reverting to old habits. In college, especially, I would eat nothing but a cup of soup and then walk up the 17 flights of stairs to my dorm room. I was known for my cupcake obsession and my illicit dorm room cupcake maker. I wanted to be a happy, baker person. And so, when I first lived alone, following the summer of 2015, it was my chance to reinvent myself. For the first time in my life, I stopped comparing myself to other bodies. I turned off the voices that told me I would be beautiful if I was skinny--and that's why no one loved me. I baked when I wanted, and shared my wares with my students. I meal-prepped and ate foods that were nourishing and comforting. I filled my home with whatever foods I wanted to try. Baked cookies with butter, even though--growing up--we only made them with applesauce. Food was my friend. And it was delicious.
I take food pretty seriously. Probably still for control but, different yet. I still can't get myself to eat creamy things. I hate tomatoes. I am quick to fall into old habits and, if I don't monitor the voices, they have their worst lines memorized.
We're at that weird point of the summer where, in a normal year, I'm enjoying the time off. I'm in the midst of projects, maybe teaching summer school, definitely partaking in my fair share of sunny shenanigans. We've had picnics and movie nights, rooftop drinks, bridge walks. We've gone to free concerts, all of the museums, visited every new bakery. There have been lots of tacos. I'm almost ready to go back to work, but then I find another show on Netflix that I haven't seen yet or more goods to be baked, so not really.
But this is not a normal summer. In fact, summer has gone on for far too long. The forever-vacation, that started in March, has become my own personal bell jar. I spend most of my days in the same athlesiure shorts. I had to retire the matching HOMEBODY sweatshirt at the beginning of June but the shorts have become sort of like a quarantine uniform. I obsessively check my emails, I can't sleep. I fall silent. I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again. Sometimes the world does feel like a bad dream.
But we're slowly getting back into the swing of real-life. Not that I have any idea what that will look like but--it's official--I am Mrs. Ziskin, 8th grade ELA teacher. And I couldn't be more excited for using my new name in this new classroom. And, how lucky am I, to spend my days with my favorite person?! When I left our old school, Jordan and I mourned the end of our together-days: We were afraid it was the end of something magnificent. All we wanted was to capture and bottle the way it felt to be able to walk into the room and see our person, whenever we needed to. Send a text and they appear. To share lunch, snacks, laughs. And, somehow, less than a month later, we were back at it: no more than five seconds away from one another. Sneaking snacks on Zoom calls, mid-day cuddle breaks, making tea.
But then the weekend hits and it feels so much like the weekdays. Only there are less emails. And, suddenly, you realize you've already done everything you needed to do this week. Where weekends used to be a catch-all, now it's dropped time. And the courses I've taken, the books I've read, the planning I've gotten done--none of it happens fast enough or feel productive enough. The world, for the first time, lacks purpose. The hours hold less meaning.
I try to enjoy it while I can, knowing this--like everything--is fleeting. I have a hand-full of gratitudes that are as consistent as the days of the week (Jordan, exercise, mom, wedding plans, tea) and something, every day, that grounds me.
I take a deep breath and listen to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.
Even though the days all look the same, rolling from one to another like far-away waves, they don’t all f e e l the same. Some days I get up early and work up a sweat. Then, pink-faced and ready for the day, I work on recipes or a course online or sit down and journal. I read. Do some work, even.
We may even mask-up and go outside to social distance our way through Brooklyn, remembering when passerby would aggressively bump right shoulders and never apologize. You start to miss the abuse of the city. Too docile, now. She’s lost her bite.
But it all feels somewhat productive. I’m grateful for days like this where, even though nothing is normal, I can remember how normal use to feel (the pounding of routine in the balls of my bare feet).
Other days, I can barely convince myself that life beyond the comforter has meaning.
I think about the wasted months and stew in a puddle of my own disappointments; the waters thick from months of rain.
I look ahead to the plans I have made only to unmake (big ones) and can’t see how a made bed or freshly made cinnamon buns will ever make-up for what has been taken away.
I try not to get stuck there. I daydream far enough ahead that the virus won’t catch me. I put on a brave face, like so many of us do, and take a collection of deep breaths.
But some days are easier than others. And I know I’m just having a pity-party and I’m lucky. For health. For home. For all we have.
Hello, everybody. Hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe. If you want to know some of my random brain-thoughts, when we are allotted too much time for brain-thoughts, please feel free to read along. If not, that’s quite alright. I won’t be offended.
I don’t do my hair or wear make-up but I didn’t really do those things before (when I could help it). I thought I would like this; as a self-professed homebody. I imagined time at home, no-excuses-necessary, would be heaven sent.
I didn’t realize how much of my day required the outside world. How much I would miss my friends, my nightly socializing, walking into a grocery store, brunch at Time Out Market, going into work...the things you take for granted.
It’s almost May. And I remember where I was last almost-May; the things I worried about, the way I spent my days. This is a different world.
And so I’m doing the day-by-day song and dance and holding my loved ones a little tighter. I wake in gratitude, for the things we have. I’m practicing my breathing and trying to remind myself that this, like everything, is only temporary. And, boy, will these be stories to tell some day.
A Closed-Letter to Corona Virus (it would be an open letter but nothing's open anymore),
It feels universal: that gnawing pit behind the belly-button, the rock by the larynx, the heaviness behind the eyes. As a child, I think you dream of the day the world stops: No school, your parents staying home, making pillow-forts and reading The Little Prince. It sounds fanciful and full of snacks before snack-time and sneaking chocolate chips from cookie batter. But, the reality of the world stopping is far more bleak. It's staring at screens and cabin fever. It's becoming a sore loser and missing routine. But worse, yet, it isn't just you playing hooky on a Tuesday, it's week-after-week, with no end in-sight. It's jobs that stop paying, it's plans you can't plan for.
And sometimes the un-planning of plans, years in the works, makes it hard to breathe. The build-up, the expectation, the why is this happening to me? But when the selfishness subsides, it's like grasping at straws, sometimes, but there is something
In a world where we have lost so much sense of community, to all be experiencing so much of the same feelings, in real-time, it sobering.
This is Me:
My name's Melissa. I'm the girl with her hands in her journal.