DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #80: The Ordinary Miraculous

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Dearest Sweet Peas,

Long-time readers of my column know that it’s my tradition that every time I reach a “new decade” of columns I do a Q&A, in which I write shorter answers to several questions instead of the usual longer, single question column. With this week’s column I decided to alter that tradition a bit by addressing four questions that rise out of previous columns. I get many of these sorts of questions–people asking me expand upon a response to something I’ve previously written. I’ll answer more questions of this nature in column #90 and perhaps beyond. Thanks for reading and please come back for more next week.

Love,

Sugar

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Dear Sugar,

I have a question inspired by your extraordinary column, “The Obliterated Place.” You wrote: “You go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage.” The channels you’ve found for your love are many and manifest. What channels have you found for your rage?

Signed,

Elissa

Dear Elissa,

In order of their experience:

Food deprivation.

Long-distance running.

Writing.

Political activism.

Sex with people I hardly knew and didn’t particularly desire.

Heroin.

Loud music in smoky bars while wearing miniskirts and cowboy boots.

Solitude.

Rage itself.

The understanding that love and rage are two channels of the same river.

Acceptance.

Love.

Writing like a motherfucker.

This column.

Loving harder.

Yours,

Sugar

Dear Sugar,

When I was 17 someone sexually assaulted me. I was naive and I didn’t understand it. Anxiety became a deep part of my life and it almost pulled me under. Pulling myself up and trudging onward was all I could do. Thanks for your column, “The Baby Bird,” and for putting the experience so succinctly. It’s all about accepting it. There is no what the fuck. It just is what it is, and nothing more. You can lift your head up and deal with it, or never move on.

I have been dating a really great guy for about a year and a half. How do I tell him about my sexual assault? Do I need to? I’ve made peace with it. It doesn’t affect my relationship or my day-to-day life, but it was a formative and intense thing and therefore played an important role in shaping who I am today. We’ve been through some emotionally intense events (his mother passed away last year), so I know he’s probably capable of hearing it. I would love your advice.

Signed,

Over It

Dear Over It,

I have a friend who is twenty years older than me who was raped three different times over the course of her life. She’s a talented painter of some renown. When I learned about the rapes she’d endured, I asked her how she recovered from them, how she continued having healthy sexual relationships with men. She told me that at a certain point we get to decide who it is we allow to influence us. She said, “I could allow myself to be influenced by three men who screwed me against my will or I could allow myself to be influenced by van Gogh. I chose van Gogh.”

I never forgot that. I think of that phrase I chose van Gogh whenever I’m having trouble lifting my own head up. And I thought of it when I read your letter, Over It. You chose van Gogh too. Something ugly happened to you and you didn’t let it make you ugly. I salute you for your courage and grace.

I think you should tell your boyfriend about your sexual assault, sweet pea, and I think you should tell it straight. What happened. How you suffered. How you healed. How you feel about it now. I know—I really know—what you mean about how this terrible experience no longer impacts your “day-to-day” life, but, as you also say, it played an important role in shaping who you are. The whole deal about loving truly and for real and with all you’ve got has everything to do with letting those we love see what made us.

Withholding this trauma from your boyfriend makes it bigger than it needs to be. It creates a secret you’re too beautiful to keep. Telling has a way of dispersing things. It will allow your lover to stand closer inside the circle of you. Let him.

Yours,

Sugar

Dear Sugar,

In your column “The Truth That Lives There,” you wrote about the little voice that whispers “go.” Finding out that it exists for other people who are partnered with someone they love dearly—and that its existence, in and of itself, is enough of a reason to leave—went through my heart like a javelin.

In that same column, you wrote, “You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner.” How does one DO that?

With all my love and respect,

Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

One does that by being kind above all else. By explaining one’s decision to leave the relationship with love and respect and emotional transparency. By being honest without being brutal. By expressing gratitude for what was given. By taking responsibility for mistakes and attempting to make amends. By acknowledging that one’s decision has caused another human being to suffer. By suffering because of that. By having the guts to stand by one’s partner even while one is leaving. By talking it all the way through and by listening. By honoring what once was. By bearing witness to the undoing and salvaging what one can. By being a friend, even if an actual friendship is impossible. By having good manners. By considering how one might feel if the tables were turned. By going out of one’s way to minimize hurt and humiliation. By trusting that the most compassionate thing of all is to release those we don’t love hard enough or true enough or big enough or right. By believing we are all worthy of hard, true, big, right love. By remembering. By letting go.

Yours,

Sugar

Dear Sugar,

I printed out your column, “The Future Has An Ancient Heart,” and put it up on my wall so I can read it often. Many aspects of that column move me, but I think most of all it’s this idea that (as you wrote) we “cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.” The general mystery of becoming seems like a key idea in many of your columns. It’s made me want to know more. Will you give us a specific example of how something like this has played out in your life, Sugar?

Thank you.

Big Fan

Dear Big Fan,

The summer I was 18 I was driving down a country road with my mother. This was in the rural county where I grew up and all of the roads were country, the houses spread out over miles, hardly any of them in sight of a neighbor. Driving meant going past an endless stream of trees and fields and wildflowers. On this particular afternoon, my mother and I came upon a yard sale at a big house where a very old woman lived alone, her husband dead, her kids grown and gone.

“Let’s look and see what she has,” my mother said as we passed, so I turned the car around and pulled into the old woman’s driveway and the two of us got out.

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We were the only people there. Even the old woman whose sale it was didn’t come out of the house, only waving to us from a window. It was August, the last stretch of time that I would I live with my mother. I’d completed my first year of college by then and I’d returned home for the summer because I’d gotten a job in a nearby town. In a few weeks I’d go back to college and I’d never again live in the place I called home, though I didn’t know that then.

There was nothing much of interest at the yard sale, I saw, as I made my way among the junk—old cooking pots and worn-out board games; incomplete sets of dishes in faded, unfashionable colors and appalling polyester pants—but as I turned away, just before I was about to suggest that we should go, something caught my eye.

It was a red velvet dress trimmed with white lace, fit for a toddler.

“Look at this,” I said and held it up to my mother, who said oh isn’t that the sweetest thing and I agreed and then set the dress back down.

In a month I’d be 19. In a year I’d be married. In three years I’d be standing in a meadow not far from that old woman’s yard holding the ashes of my mother’s body in my palms. I was pretty certain at that moment that I would never be a mother myself. Children were cute, but ultimately annoying, I thought then. I wanted more out of life.

And yet, ridiculously, inexplicably, on that day the month before I turned 19, as my mother and I poked among the detritus of someone else’s life, I kept returning to that red velvet dress fit for a toddler. I don’t know why. I cannot explain it even still except to say something about it called powerfully to me. I wanted that dress. I tried to talk myself out of wanting it as I smoothed my hands over the velvet. There was a small square of masking tape near its collar that said $1.

“You want that dress?” my mother asked nonchalantly, glancing up from her own perusals.

“Why would I?” I snapped, perturbed with myself more than her.

“For someday,” said my mother.

“But I’m not even going to have kids,” I argued.

“You can put it in a box,” she replied. “Then you’ll have it, no matter what you do.”

“I don’t have a dollar,” I said with finality.

“I do,” my mother said and reached for the dress.

I put it in a box, in a cedar chest that belonged to my mother. I dragged it with me all the way along the scorching trail of my twenties and into my thirties. I had two abortions and then I had two babies. The red dress was a secret only known by me, buried for years among my mother’s best things. When I finally unearthed it and held it again it was like being punched in the face and kissed at the same time, like the volume was being turned way up and also way down. The two things that were true about its existence had an opposite effect and were yet the same single fact:

My mother bought a dress for the granddaughter she’ll never know.

My mother bought a dress for the granddaughter she’ll never know.

How beautiful. How ugly.

How little. How big.

How painful. How sweet.

It’s almost never until later that we can draw a line between this and that. There was no force at work other than my own desire that compelled me to want that dress. It’s meaning was made only by my mother’s death and my daughter’s birth. And then it meant a lot. The red dress was the material evidence of my loss, but also of the way my mother’s love had carried me forth beyond her, her life extending years into my own in ways I never could have imagined. It was a becoming that I would not have dreamed was mine the moment that red dress caught my eye.

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I don’t think my daughter connects me to my mother any more than my son does. My mother lives as brightly in my boy child as she does in my girl. But seeing my daughter in that red dress on the second Christmas of her life gave me something beyond words. The feeling I got was like that original double whammy I’d had when I first pulled that dress from the box of my mother’s best things, only now it was:

My daughter is wearing a dress that her grandmother bought for her at a yard sale.

My daughter is wearing a dress that her grandmother bought for her at a yard sale.

It’s so simple it breaks my heart. How unspecial that fact is to so many, how ordinary for a child to wear a dress her grandmother bought her, but how very extraordinary it was to me.

I suppose this is what I meant when I wrote what I did, sweet pea, about how it is we cannot possibly know what will manifest in our lives. We live and have experiences and leave people we love and get left by them. People we thought would be with us forever aren’t and people we didn’t know would come into our lives do. Our work here is to keep faith with that, to put it in a box and wait. To trust that someday we will know what it means, so that when the ordinary miraculous is revealed to us we will be there, standing before the baby girl in the pretty dress, grateful for the smallest things.

Yours,

Sugar
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