A Conversation With Death: Vignetted.

I wrote this to answer a question on Quora. I enjoyed writing it so much that I needed to include it in my blog. The original can be found here. Enjoy.

~*~*~


“So, what will it be this time, love?”

I sigh. “This is a predicament.”

“You knew the whole time, love, somewhere inside you. If you think of it now, you know it’s true. It is all here for you. You chose to not look. You always do.”

My fingers rest on the edge of the tea cup in front of me as I stare out the window. I am absorbing what they just said, and it is taking me a minute.

I chose not to see, they said.

The sky has changed colour two hundred and sixty three times since I’ve been sitting here. I have been counting them without even thinking about it, a roll call of shades. Azure, fuchsia, eggplant, rose, coral, marigold, chartreuse, forest, deepening to an inky black before lightening back to a turquoise, garnet, slate, fire…

When did the sky start changing colours? I seemed to recall it only being variations of one shade, at one point in time.

There is a shift in the air that suggests a door opening or closing in the near vicinity, but I can’t take my eyes off the changing sky to see where the door is, or if anyone else has entered this place. I might lose count.

I get the sense that they are sitting with me, at this antique, gnarled-looking table. Every time I glance over to where the oversized chair is opposite me, competing in age with the table between us, they fade around the edges so I cannot quite make out their identifiable features so I know what I am looking at. I know there is someone there, though. It is like my eyes will not focus enough on them to really see them.

I can feel them, though. I can feel their breath on my hand, resting on the table next to the tea cup, where my other hand’s fingers play with the edges. I feel tiny prickles on my skin. It doesn’t hurt, it just feels mildly tingly. I want to move away from it, but also toward it. I can feel something graze me periodically, brushing my cheek, the back of my neck, the edge of my elbow, curl around my ankle, like a wisp of air that has lost it’s way from the rest of a wind.

How long have I been sitting here, sipping earl grey out of this beautiful china? The cup was large enough for a good sized cup of tea, but felt feathery fragile in my hands. It has a beautiful pattern on the sides of it that moves a little so the details are hard to focus on, kind of like them. It provoked me to touch the edges of it, making sure I was caring for it while holding it and drinking for it; showing it affection, even.

I don’t actually know if a minute has passed. It could have been an hour, or maybe a year. I could have been sitting here with my index finger tracing the edge of a china cup for a decade. Maybe it’s been millennia.

I chose not to see, they said.

The cushion on the matching chair under me is soft. My hips don’t hurt at all. Usually, if I’ve been sitting in the same position for a while, my right hip starts to protest a little. Now that I’m thinking about my physicality, I take note of the fact that my hip isn’t hurting. I uncross my legs, resetting my posture, and cross them the other way. My right foot curls around the back of my opposite calf, the muscles of my legs tightening against each other.

I remember reading somewhere that if you cross your legs too much, the veins on them struggle and become visible, creating spiderweb designs on thighs that a lot of women crinkle their noses at the prospects of having. I can’t remember not having those tiny visible blue lines here and there on my legs, or if they started appearing at a point, or if they’ve always been.

Maybe I’ve always been sitting here.

“If I chose to see, what would happen if I looked? How many times have there been, can you tell me that, at least?” I asked.

“You always choose blindness. You’re all the same, when it comes to that. You look away.”

“Everyone?”

“Well, not everyone. Most.”

“Okay. What now, then?”

“Now, you get to choose to look and never go back, or leave me.”

“But, I’m not done with living. I’m not ready.”

“I know, love. I didn’t expect this one, of them all, to change your mind.”

“It was pretty good, this time.”

“You say that every time, love.”

“This one seemed particularly good.”

“How do you know? Do you remember the others?”

I thought about this for another two hundred years, at least.

“No. I dream about them, though. I have seen glimpses of others in my dreams. Tiny vignettes into the rest, and the vignettes fade very quickly upon waking. They feel subliminal in my unconsciousness, like interlopers.”

“You can see them all if you look, but that means you will not go back again.”

Tears were standing in my eyes.

“You cry every time, too, love.”

“I just, I cannot imagine not going back. There’s too much to do, and see. Have you been there lately? It’s beautiful.”

“You do not have any idea how many times those words have passed over your perfect lips, love. I know. You tell me all about your time, every one.”

My hand suddenly tightens around the tea cup, crushing it. The cup was so delicate that it turned into dust in my palm.

“I have to go back.”

“I know you do, love. I’ll be here, waiting, when you’re done. We will see each other again, and you can decide that time if you are ready to look.”

“I’m sorry.” Why am I apologizing to Death? I feel remorse, suddenly, for abandoning them. “Will you be sad if I go?”

“Oh, no. I can wait. I have been waiting for you forever, and will continue to do so.”

“That’s sweet.” I squint at them, trying to see who I am speaking with. They are familiar, and alien, all at once. They look like no one, and every single being I have every laid eyes on. “You’ve been with me the whole time, yes? Thank you. I appreciate your patience with my leaving, and your being here when I come back.”

“How can you say that? You never remember the other times.”

“… I suppose that’s true. I will miss you.” I know this is an empty statement, because according to them, I don’t remember each time I am here. That must be infuriating, I thought for a moment, and then I remember that Death has to be the most patient, and can only keep me when I want to be kept.

“I appreciate the sentiment.”

“I feel compelled to go, though.”

“I know, love. Go. I can wait.”

“You’re perfect.”

I could not see the expression on Death’s face, but I want to say they were smiling.

“You have no idea.”

~*~*~

Dear Chelsey: A Letter to My Previous Self.

Dear Chelsey,

Hello. I know, I’m surprised too. We have read lots of time-travel lo-fantasy, and we always wondered what we would be like when we were older.

Here I am. We made it this far, and we’re aging okay, despite our best efforts to self-destruct. Lucky us. It is a good thing we’ve eaten pretty well over the years, even with all the other toxicity we’ve subjected ourselves to. Hopefully we quit smoking soon enough, and have curbed our inebriation choices to a livable frequency and quantity. I’ll get back on that yoga train soon, I promise. This winter was really tough on us, so we’re being gentle and introducing a self-care regimen slowly.

I am pleased to be able to offer you some insight. I hate to say it, because this may come across as “I’m so glad I’m not you”. But I’m really glad that I am not even a moment younger than I currently am, and look forward to being older and having more experiences to draw from. They really knew what they were talking about when they said, “wait until you’re older”, or “listen to your elders”, or whatever other anecdotal advice some older person tried to give you over the years that you probably took with a grain of salt. Salt is a very important grain to take, but it helps to listen too, and we didn’t know that then, as most younger people overlook. We’re getting a better grip now, thankfully, and finally. It is so hard to listen to advice when we’re young and wilful.

We are going to be thirty-five this year, if you can believe it. That’s a third of a lifetime, done. Half, if we’re feeling not as optimistic. I tend to lean on the optimism end of the spectrum, or I try.

You’ve been through a lot, already, haven’t you? I’m pretty sure you were reeling from the things you had been through by the age of twelve, let alone where I am at thirty-four. I assure you, at each of the junctures I am going to acknowledge you at, you were tired. I think we’ve probably been tired our whole lives, and because we didn’t know any different, we just kept plugging along, kept trying, kept telling ourselves we were lucky it wasn’t worse. Now, I have learned about things like trauma-bonding, codependency, and how bad the things you have been through were. We used to talk ourselves out of that. We laugh when we’re nervous, and when we’re scared, because we want it to not be as bad as it is, or are trying to make light of our own struggle.

We gaslit ourselves for years because that was the way others taught us to treat ourselves by treating us as such. We know better now, but slip up from time to time and try not to be too hard on ourselves when we do.

It’s okay that the things that happened to us were bad, even if they weren’t as bad as some of the other things other people have suffered. It’s okay to have been hurt, and to have been unlucky in some cases, and to feel that. We are lucky in a lot of ways and have a lot of privileges, but those do not mitigate the hurt we have been subject to, and glossing over those hurts isn’t helping you move through them, so let’s stop that together, okay?

I’m going to go over some things that have happened, and are going to happen to you, and what I think would have helped you if I had known these things when they happened to me. I will refer to your age at the time of the event, or the instance, so we can keep straight what we’re talking about. That should help this be less confusing.

There may be an overarching theme to the information I am going to give you, but we will see if that emerges while I compile this letter. Who knows, this might even narrow down to one succinct piece of advice.

Let’s start early.

When the girls in your early elementary classes are not being kind to you, don’t worry about it. You’re a curious, communicative, amicable being; you want to talk to everyone, and have done since you gained the ability to speak. Your parents let you run wild at parties and other social spaces, and you made friends with everyone. This is not the way school is going to work for you, and it’s not really anyone’s fault. A bunch of kids are mashed together, coming from differences they don’t understand yet, and they can be mean, unfortunately. These girls are only going to be around you for a couple more years, and then you will find different friends that are nicer and much more supportive. They are probably just trying to work out if they have any power, just like you. There are differences between you and them that have to do with things you don’t understand yet, like class privilege. It doesn’t feel okay at the time; the rejection is palpable, and what you don’t yet understand is that you fall in love with girls. Their disinterest is more hurt-filled than you, or they, understand, because all the Disney movies show girls falling in love with boys. Try not to let this silence you. Keep being yourself, and don’t change so they like you. They are not going to like you anyway if they don’t want to, and they are not a representative set of how women can be in your life. Further, stand with the people those girls are mean to besides yourself. Those are your allies, and you will remember them until you’re me.

Your dad is going to go away for a little bit and you’re going to have to move house when you’re still quite young, at seven. It is not your fault, even though your words were an integral part of how this came to pass so suddenly. This is for the best, and he is just doing what he needs to do to be happy. He will be an amazing father because he is a happy man. He met his soulmate; she is going to be a wonderful support system for you later, so trust him. He will be back, and he will be a really solid parent for you, as will she. They will mitigate a lot of the damage done to you by others in your childhood life, and set you up with some of the skills you will need to navigate hardship. Through this, and through their examples of survival, you will learn profound resilience.

Your mum getting sick, diagnosed when you’re ten, is going to impact a lot of things in your life. She doesn’t mean to be angry at everything all the time. She can’t really help it. She wasn’t socialized to be able to deal with how angry she is at her circumstances very well, and is very resentful of how, now, she must rely on others to take care of her quite a lot. The betrayal she feels by your dad is going to go on for a long time, because it’s a tangible thing to blame. Try not to take that personally, or feel the need to defend him. It will just turn her anger on you, and that’s not really all that helpful. She sees him in you, and can’t not see him when she’s really mad. She mixes this up with all her anger about her illness, and it just compounds and fills her with vitriol. She has been dealt a hard hand, and can’t help but lash out at the closest people: her children. She can’t handle the injustice of it all, at times. Her body is failing her and she’s livid about it, but that doesn’t mean she gets to treat you badly.

You can leave, and you will. When you are ready.

Speaking of Mum, she is going to betray you.

Be ready, my dear. This is going to shape parts of your character, and be a shadow within your personality for the rest of your life.

This thing that is going to happen is going to shape a lot of how you engage with people, unfortunately. Let it wash over you; she is not the way all women are. Try not to let that betrayal shape your perspective of women in general, because you will have strong, supportive ones in your life much later, and you will love them very deeply, as they will you. Trust them, even though the first one to influence you was not trustworthy, as it turned out. I know it will be hard, because the imprinting that occurred with this betrayal is going to be a mountain to overcome, but you can do it. Women will be some of the greatest loves of your life, so start climbing that mountain. It will be so worth it.

Now, let us talk about your relationships with men.

Your first sexual experience with a male person should have been much, much later than it was. It’s not your fault; he’s a broken human, and he didn’t know not to touch children, for some reason.

Oh honey, I’m so, so sorry.

You need to be tough, and at the first sign that he may touch you, scream and tell someone immediately. He will start with just an escalation of affection, which feels really weird but you’re eleven, so you don’t know how to process it.

Stop him.

It will get worse, and he will keep going, keep touching you, escalate the sexual nature of the contact until you stop him. This is horrifically unfair, because you are eleven and no child should have to learn how to fight a grown man’s sexual advances off of them at that age, but you will have to fight him off. You will have to snap him out of the drunken haze that has allowed him to think this is acceptable. Tell people who are safe, and you will know who is safe deep in your heart, until someone listens and helps you. Don’t listen to your mum this time; don’t let her silence you. She is internalizing the responsibility of his actions, and she’s afraid of him, and what he will do if she tries to get him to leave. She doesn’t know how to get him to leave, or if she would be okay if he left, so she acts out of fear and tries to shove what happened down and away, tries to make it disappear.

She demands of you that same burial. She demands that you forget it happened, and ignore it.

Don’t erase yourself.

Tell your friends’ mums, or your dad and stepmum, or both. Just don’t be quiet. The silence will eat away at your soul worse than the impact of the assault itself. It will erode your personality, change you permanently, though not irreparably, but that will take years. I know; four years of quiet almost kills you until you are not quiet anymore, and you find support and retribution. You are so brave, and that bravery saves your life, even if you didn’t realize it at the time.

She does not understand what the silence, the suppression, and the lack of advocation by her, for you, is going to do to you. Years later, she will say so. She will not verbalize any understanding of what happened for you before she dies. Your peace with her will have to be made within yourself, without her.

Yeah, I know. This world is like, really fucked up sometimes.

Go to counselling. Even when you think you feel better, keep going. The days you think to yourself “I think I’m okay today. I wonder what there is to talk about?” will be the best sessions. Those sessions really get into your emotional process, and what you need to be healthy and safe. Keep going.

When your “friend” offers you that bag of drugs in trade for a money loan, think about what you are doing. This decision will evaporate a year of your life, at least, and turn you into someone you don’t recognize. Those particular drugs are the sort that erode a part of you that determines morality. You need that part, so stop using as soon as you can. You will come out of it okay when you’re ready, and you have the strength to overcome this particular bout of addiction, as you will overcome many, but your dad will age about twenty years watching you do this and he really needs that lifetime bandwidth.

When that charming boy you met in a drug-fuelled, or alcohol-fuelled, haze wants you to go to that party with him, or that bar, or his house in that cab, consider your options. Please, don’t listen to him. He doesn’t care enough about you and he will show it time and time again with his actions. Watch him, don’t listen to his words, and believe what you know in your heart to be true about him from watching his actions. He doesn’t see you. You are merely a shade, subtle, in his hero story. This is not good enough.

This particular piece of advice was offered without age or timeline, because it happens so many times, I cannot count them all.

Your dad is amazing. This means you trust men to support you emotionally and take care of you when you are too wrecked to take care of yourself, and they will not meet that bar more than most of the time. Approaching your relationships with men with some skepticism as to their ability to meet you where you are at is very prudent, and you will be alright regardless. You will survive them all, and you will leave them all on your own volition, because you should and you will know when to get out. They aren’t good enough. Whether they become such later is irrelevant, because the damage they are doing to you in their negligence is not worth it.

In fact, This is a key tenet to be mindful of: watch what people do. Don’t listen to what they say all the time. They will tell you stories with their actions, and those are so much truer than the words they say. Watch for the people who do exactly what they say, and keep those close to you.

Have sex with men if you want to, but be sure to check in with yourself and confirm that you actually want to. Do it for you, not because they want you to, or you think they will like you more if you do. They won’t. They’re taking your life-force from you if you’re not into it, and you need that to survive. You could be reliving past trauma by engaging in sexual situations you don’t one hundred percent want to be doing, and that’s hurting you more than you know. You are sensitive, particularly about sexual things, as a result of your history. Stay on top of using protection, and if they have a problem with that, leave. You will get lucky, but there’s no such thing as too cautious. This will fail once, and particularly devastatingly, but again, you are lucky: you live in a country that has legal and safe abortion access. You catch it early, and it is like it never happened.

Your body needs to carry you through your life; treat it with reverence.

It will take you until the time of this letter being written by me, by future you, for you to realize the trauma you have subjected yourself to by having sex with people you aren’t completely into. This will happen over and over again for years. You will have lots of great sex; you will be very into a lot of the people you are intimate with, but there will be as many, if not more people that you’re not. You are a sex-positive person, and this will conflate with your desire, which will lead to a lot of situations that are more “I guess, because I should be into this” than “fuck yes”. “I guess” isn’t consent. The people you were having sex with should have known based on your body language, your intoxication, your hesitancy prior to their coercion, but they went ahead with it anyway. That’s on them, so don’t beat yourself up about this. You are responsible for yourself, but you are also only fifty percent responsible for the interactions you have with others. You are also a conventionally attractive woman, so people are going to chase you. Your boundaries have been historically shaky, so it’s no wonder that sometimes, particularly manipulative and toxic people get in close with you. You get better and better at dealing with this every single day, and I am hopeful that I will continue into the future to get even better.

Here is something very important about that, something that I wish I had known so much sooner than ago:

People getting close to you and your not seeing their negative impact on you until it’s too late is absolutely not your fault.

How other people push you, push your soft spots to see where the weaknesses are, how they covertly cross boundaries in order to get what they want, how they don’t check in, how they take what they can extract from you, how they steamroll over you: that is entirely on them.

People who prioritize egalitarianism, and who care about you, will not do this to you.

You’re not going to find your people until you are in your thirties. Your social nature, the way you easily get close to people and the way you are always growing and changing will lead to you cycling through a lot of social circles through your teens, twenties, and beyond. You will manage to keep a few people for the duration of those years, but most of them will come and go. In your mid-thirties, you will still see some churn, but there will be a core network that challenges you, and nourishes you. The people who are close then will value everything you are, and you won’t have to change or try to muffle any aspect of yourself with them. You will be valued for your headstrong, intense nature and the depth and ease with how you feel. Let that shine, and they’ll be able to see you in the dark. The people who want to take advantage of you will not even try anymore because you will terrify them. They will back away from your fire, as well they should, because you will incinerate them if they get too close. Too often over the course of your life you have been made small and quiet by others, and not only was that an assault on your state of being and your psyche, it was unjust.

You are valuable, and so are your thoughts and feelings.

A thread seems to have emerged, as we both suspected it might. Alongside that of “watch what people do, and see if it lines up with the words they say”, the other is “don’t let people silence you”.

Don’t snuff yourself out your fire. Do not be quiet. Deafen them all with the sound of your voice. Do it to protect yourself and to support people who are struggling in your community.

Be as emphatic as you love, with all of your heart.

Much love to you,

Chelsey

On Depression, and Grieving.

When my alarm goes off in the morning, I’m stunned. I wonder if I even slept. I must have, because I remember the dreams. I remember imagery representing conflict and struggle, my subconscious throwing uncomfortable situations I cannot escape from and spectres of real people that my brain has made up for me to confront, or wrangle myself away from. I dream of emotional violence, and physical transgressions: subtly escalating conundrums that I allow to unfold until I can’t anymore because they’re too fucked up and I can’t tolerate them. I have to get out. I wake when I reach the point of needing to get out. My voice doesn’t exist in these dreams. It is when I say “no”, or scream, or throw a flurry of protesting language about what is happening to me that I awaken.

I never get to say my piece.

Getting out of bed every day is like trying to chip away at cement that holds me in place, under the pile of blankets. I lay in bed for as long as I possibly can without being late, letting my alarm go off repeatedly, and usually end up late anyway as a result of staring in the mirror or standing in the shower thinking too long.

I suppose I’ll shower. I can’t remember whether I’m supposed to wash my hair today or tomorrow, so I’ll do it now I guess. Putting on some eyeliner is a good idea, right? Maybe it will help me not look so tired. Or look like I tried.

Eating is work, but I get hungry so I do it. I better drink a coffee so I don’t get a headache later, but if I don’t it doesn’t really matter. Headaches are fine. I try to drink as much water as I can over the course of the day, because I think maybe that is helpful, I don’t know. I rely on a routine to tell me whether I’ve taken care of myself or not; a mental check-list of the things I seem to remember wanting to do every day to help me function.

I go to do whatever i’m supposed to be doing, working or some other thing, putting one foot in front of the other because that’s how walking happens, and that’s how I get there. I think while I walk; I try to convince myself that I can get through the day, as a kind of mantra as I pick my way through busier areas littered with pedestrians or quieter side streets. When I interact with strangers, I try to plaster a smile on my face that is, by some feat of inner strength, is reaching my eyes. I succeed sometimes, and know I do when people don’t ask if I’m okay.

I don’t want to answer them. I’m bad at lying.

I try to make sure I don’t cancel too many of my plans to see friends, because I know I need to be with people socially in order to get energy. I seem to remember that working, before.

Making keystrokes is like moving through mud, my fingers struggling to form the words across my laptop screen. The swirling thoughts in my head have to go somewhere else, though. The list of unwritten projects has grown to the point where I may never run out of ideas.

I experience relief that I love to write, because if every one of these thoughts had to stay inside my head, I might die.

Sometimes I wish I could draw. The things that spring into existence in my head might better be served with a physical representation, but I, for whatever reason, haven’t put time into learning how to accurately represent imagery. Words do okay, though. They have to.

If I could draw what the last several months has been like, I would draw a vast post-apocalyptic wasteland. The sun barely cuts through the smog, casting a red-brown hue on every shape, forming elongated shadows across barren terrain dotted with structural ruin. Dumpster fires, piles of garbage, abandoned shells of what used to be homes and gardens. The land here is scorched from some sort of war. Burnt soil, scattered with large burlap sacks full of salt to make sure that once the earth has stopped burning, there’s salt to put down.

Nothing grows here. The salt is to make sure of it.

I’m sitting on a pile of broken bricks in the middle of all this wreckage. My hair is thin, falling out, the pieces of it that hit the ground turn into ashes. My fingers are stained with soot from sifting around the dirt to try to put out the fires. My nails are cracking. My shoulders are hunched over, a bit shaky. It’s hard to sit up straight when there’s nothing inside me to hold my form up. The colour has escaped my eyes, and in them is nothing. Vacancy. I’ve lost the ability to look up; I have the sense that if I could just look at the horizon, I might see something that feels like light or hope. My neck simply won’t allow my eyes to lift enough to look. I’m staring down at the ground in front of me, at my own hands, barely able to keep my eyes from squinting shut and just not looking at anything at all but the blackness on the inside of my eyelids. I smell burning. Rubber, paper, oil, all the burning smells are on the air like a chorus of voices. Breathing is shallow and laboured. I can see wisps of my tiny little breaths curl out of my nose with my exhales after i’ve taken a tiny little breath, off the edges of my lips. The tendrils of air disappear quickly, barely real. I cannot even tell if I still need to breathe. Do my lungs want to? Do I need oxygen? Is there any? It is very cold here, which is unexpected because there are fires everywhere.

Everything is burning.

Get the salt ready.

My fingers are curled around a small spade, and there’s a bag of salt sitting next to me. My hands vibrate from the strain as I shove my little tool into the sack, barely able to lift and shake the salt on the ground around me. I haven’t cried about any of it of weeks, which is surprising because normally i’m quite prone to tears. I blink, and somehow a few more of my tears collect in the waterline, waiting to go in the bag of salt, with the rest of them.

Those were the last ones. They are all gone. I’ve been crying into bags and sitting here, waiting for the tears to turn into the salt that I’ve been spreading around, making sure nothing grows anymore.

Off on the horizon is the monster that Ruined Everything. It is a projection, a shade. I can’t see what it looks like, only that the whole place looks like this because of it. I can feel it; It is angry at me for letting it exist. It is laughing at me for allowing it to do such a phenomenal job of destroying everything. It can’t believe I’ve allowed this to happen, and at the same time, it is shaming me because of course I did.

It knew I would.

I can feel its smoke-like claws rest on the back of my neck, scratching around the edges of my throat. If I move, it pokes me a little. Somehow it is far in the distance breaking things, but also right here, on me, making sure I don’t fight.

It is my worst enemy, my bully, my critic, my oppressor, the shackles that hold me down and back. It hates everything I do; It tells me I’m bad at writing, that I shouldn’t bother, no one cares. It tells me I will lose everything I’ve worked towards because I deserve to, and because I’m a failure. I’m not good enough. It promises me that soon, my business will fail because I’m not that good at my job anyway. It tells me the people that love me will soon see what’s wrong with me, and leave. It tells me that people who don’t meet me where I’m at are better off, and I’’m to be blamed for that. It tells me I’m not worth it. It whispers terrible judgements and accusations about my heart, my priorities, my intelligence, my appearance, my intentions, and as I write these words down It is chastising me, asking me what the point of writing this is. It’s asking me why I think anyone would ever want to read it. It scoffs at my attempts at catharsis, at relief. It tells me I am wasting my time if I think any of this will do any good, or serve anyone, including me.

It’s me.

The shade is me; it speaks to me the way I speak to myself.

I am familiar with it; my brain, for the purpose of this description, assumes it’s a part of me. I am, after all, creating this reality with every keystroke. The letters form the words that spring this projection into existence. I’m choosing them, and choosing the perspective.

Everything is different from what it was six months ago. I have a new house with new cohabitants, I have new plans, new projects. I am curating spaces that are important to me. I have welcomed some people closer to my heart, and distanced myself from others. I have seen beautiful art, eaten delicious food, drank a fair amount of scotch. I laughed about things, cried about them, made jokes, enjoyed company, argued, discussed, worked, played, slept, had amazing sex, fallen in love, fallen further in love anew, stood up for myself, stood up for things that I think are important, been devastated at the world news, marched, supported people, received support. I have felt treasured, betrayed, advocated for, totally abandoned, understood, judged, free, trapped, heard, ignored, appreciated, taken for granted, seen, underestimated, humanized and objectified.

I have felt profound, passionate, soul-shattering love.

The representation of time during which amazing things have happened as dystopian, in this case, is the shade. It has to be. I can’t be the shadow of myself as I feel I have become.

I have to still be in here.

There is something resting on my neck, though. It has one talon-like set of fingers grazing me, sharp some moments and fading away into whispers the next. The other is wrapped tightly around my heart.

Dating Tips for Men* from a Sex Positive, Queer Woman.

Nice to see you here. Please make yourself comfortable. This is going to be a bit rambling, but also sharp; probably a little pointy and niggling in the parts of you that feel self-important or sure. It is probably going to be helpful, but also a bit cringe-worthy during the moments we both know are complete truth-bombs. I hope there is something in here for everyone, even though I am addressing it mostly to men*. I used the word “dating” in the title of this piece and throughout because that is what is universally understood as engaging with another person with a romantic and/or sexual slant or aspiration injected into the interaction. I typically don’t really like the word because I find it to be loaded full of expectations of some sort of escalation of seriousness after a certain amount of time. I am a huge advocate for casual love, and feel that not all romance or sexual relationship need exhibit continuity to be fulfilling, or meaningful, or downright soul-quaking. But, since I have now explained that, I will use the word “dating” to describe that engagement or interaction of a romantic and/or sexual nature.

I have an actual laundry list of things that have happened in my life that I have learned from when it comes to dating. I am going to offer up some of these understandings, as a gift, so the world can be full of happier, healthier, sexually and emotionally sated people. I have a lot of theories about emotional and sexual depravity and the impact it has on our capitalistic, very comfortable North American existence. Suffice it to say that I think if a lot more people were sexually and emotionally fulfilled and free, they might not be such assholes to one another.

I will start by telling you a little about myself as your “consultant”.

I am in my mid-thirties. I identify as queer, bisexual/pansexual, cis female/femme, sex positive and non-monogamous. I am coming at this as a person who is literally down to hang out with, and maybe consensually try to sex at, any human anywhere on the gender spectrum, just because it might be fun, provided they meet some (of what I consider to be) light requirements. I am in several relationships of varying length and seriousness, all over the romantic/sexual/neither spectrum. My friendships and my romantic partnerships have equal significance potential for me. I think and talk about this a lot, to the chagrin (I suspect) of some people; I identify as something of a love nerd. I think about my politics and how I inject them into my interpersonal relationships. I am not a dating/relationship expert; this is an opinion piece. Expert status is for people who have done their homework; I have done some homework, but not all of it.

Homework is lifelong.

I’m white; I have a lot of privilege because of this despite being female and queer. I try to think about that and be inclusive, and am actively attempting to learn how to be better every single day.

Now, a little bit of information about you (or what I assume about anyone reading this).

You are most likely here and reading because you saw the title of the essay and thought to yourself, “you know, I would totally like to date a sex positive queer woman. That seems like a pretty good idea”. Or maybe you were like, “actually, I think a sex positive queer woman would have a thing or two to tell me about what dating people is about, and how to do it without being a jerk”. Further, you might also be reading this out of spite: “what the fuck could a sex positive queer woman possibly have to say that speaks to my already extensive knowledge of people and how to date them. I am, after all, a totally hot commodity so like, I bet I could teach her a thing or two”.

If the latter is you, I’m so sorry to hear of your complete lack of self awareness, or alternatively your closed mind. There are a metric ton of great therapists in this city and probably also in yours.

Go see one.

Seriously, go to a therapist. Get your shit together.

To the rest of you: If you’d be so kind as to actually listen to me. I’m speaking from a place of ample experience attempting to date people just like you, or just not like you and like someone completely different, and everything in between. I have come to some conclusions about what might help you be more “successful”. That being said, I am going to define “successful” in this instance as “not having treated someone like shit, or been a shithead to someone”. This can also be defined as leaving people better off than when you found them.

I don’t support anyone being a shithead, or taking away from people for personal gain. To quote a dear friend in a particularly thorough outline of how to love more than one person at a time, “Don’t treat people like things”.

I am going to write this in reference to the phases a typical dating scenario goes, and what I think about it.

To start, we meet.

Oh hey; we’ve now met and you’ve established that you think I’m attractive. Thank you, I appreciate that, but not in the ways that you might think.

This first contact is not the be all, end all to your interaction with me. Stop with the “first impressions mean everything” trope. It’s old, and I am not an idiot. I know you’re a dynamic, multifaceted person that cannot be summed up in the first 5 minutes. In fact, I suspect that whatever I am first impressed with about you is more about me and my interpretations of people than about you. So, let this go and do not worry. I hope you’ll be able to do the same. Any assumptions you’ve made about me based on what you have seen in the first five minutes are probably more about you than they are about me.

Once mutual attraction has been realized, usually through clearly confirming with your words (use your words; they’re magical tools when used clearly), we can talk about what sort of interaction is mutually desired, or what we want to do together.

This is actually where things can crossroad to positive or negative. This is the turning point.

Right here.

Telling me that you think I’m hot/cute/pretty/whatever way you want to compliment my physicality isn’t going to help you out of the gate. In fact, any kind of basic flattery is going to provoke me to think that that is what you think is important about me, which is not what I think at all. I am also a dynamic, multifaceted person that cannot be summed up based on my physical presentation. Further, I have medium self-esteem issues, which I think is pretty common but not talked about enough as a systemic problem with the ways that femme-presenting women are viewed. Your compliments are going to fall a bit flat and I will, in some weird way, think you’re lying in the back of my mind.

This will put me on guard.

It gives me the impression that you want something from me, and don’t know how to ask for it, so you’re going to try to get me to like you by flattering me. Stop trying to manipulate the outcome of our interactions and just interact with me. Be yourself.

Oh my goodness, just please be yourself.

It’s 2017. Women are woke, and we see you. We see your attempts to cloud our perception. We see right through any sort of mask you are wearing. We hear our inner voices, and they’re telling us you’re putting it on. If I think you’re being at all disingenuous, we’re not going to get anywhere. Guardedness does not foster trust the way that vulnerability and authenticity does. We have learned through years of our own experiences, and those of our mothers, those of our grandmothers. Their experiences are imbedded in our genes, much like our own will be imbedded in those of our daughters. The voice in our gut telling us something isn’t safe is bang on every time.

Every. Fucking. Time.

We’re not talking ourselves out of our intuition anymore. That time has past.

I feel, sometimes, the impulse to apologize for that passing, but I will not. I am grateful for it. I’m glad that I get to be a part of a revolution in which women are using the tools we’ve been socialized to have for our own greater good, our own personal wellbeing. The benefit to us is hugely redeeming in light of what has been historically true: we needed these skills to mitigate the harm done to us. We needed to do this in covert, in shadows, subtly. We used to be emotional ninjas; now we are loud. We respond quickly to our own alarm systems.

We are battle-crying warriors.

I will not be sorry for my strength and learning how to wield it.

Now, since this is likely to happen, I’ll outline what is to be expected if I decide that this thing we’re doing together isn’t working for me.

The inevitability factor isn’t because I don’t think you’re a perfectly lovely person, or something, but more because the end of a relationship is certain unless we stay connected until one or both of us dies, and that just simply isn’t that likely. The other thing that is relatively unlikely is your coming to the conclusion that you’re not interested in seeing me anymore and doing something about it directly before I do.

I mean, if I had data to support this as more likely, I’d reflect that here.

But I don’t. You’ll probably ghost if anything, and I don’t judge you for that. It’s fine.

Because I might even ghost too, if I’m too tired to do anything else.

If you think the reason i am not continuing to be interested in seeing you is because of the thing I told you about, you’re right. I probably said something a while ago, maybe even twice, and didn’t get a response or attention paid to the thing that gave me reassurance that you care about my wellbeing within your treatment of me. So the thing that changed my mind and caused me to withdraw could have been tiny, but only because that was the straw. The rest of the things were subtle, ongoing, and didn’t seem worth mentioning until there were too many and i was done. Sometimes straws are a lack of gratitude, or not asking me a thing that shows interest in my lived experience, or some offhand comment like “i wish those women had come forward sooner” that shows me something about you, and your lack of thought process about people’s experiences besides your own lived one, and especially your perspective on those with less privilege than yours.

That is a sticking point for me.

The privilege one.

Because herein lies the final thing for this particular document.

You probably don’t see me.

You probably see someone who is nice (they say), conventionally attractive (I’m told), and have no actual idea who I am because you haven’t asked.

Ask. Be willing to learn about me. Look at me, witness, integrate what you see and understand, ask more questions, be willing to rewrite your narratives.

See me. I am dynamic. I change.

Keep up.

This, alongside some basic self-maintenance: having seen the inside of a counsellor’s office because you care about your mental health.

I need you to be thinking about what you say, why you’re about to say it, before you say it. Self-awareness is hot.

Being curious and open to learn, is all I actually need. I will probably never want to stop knowing you, or talking to you, if you can meet me with these few requirements.

The sexiest thing is a sense of responsibility for yourself in an encounter with me.

That is total panty-remover, as it were, if a sexual situation is mutually sought. Love potion, if the romantic is our reciprocal cup of tea.

Flowers are boring and probably unethically sourced, anyway.

*When I use the term “men” in this context, I am referring to people socialized as men, and are still wading through the weight and complications of what that means.

Love-Bombed.

The restaurant was so dark I could barely see him, backlit by some dim lanterns that kept the place moody, warmly toned, but technically visible. There were dark corners where booths held people, in pairs, speaking to each other intimately over the soft piano music. Cutlery clinked against glass or porcelain, subtle. I appreciated that the music wasn’t too loud, since this was the sort of place where people talk about intimate things over their meals; it surprises me to no end how many eating or drinking establishments miss that point. I was taking in everything: the small sounds, the slight taste of wine in my mouth from my last sip. The tablecloth was silky smooth under my fingers as i traced the edge of it for something to hold on to and tried to look him directly in the eye as he spoke, holding his gaze. I wanted to look anywhere else. The walls had beautiful art on them I wanted to study. It was a strange geometrical modernist sort of imagery within which you can see virtually whatever you want. The texture of the carpets was suddenly something I wanted to inspect and find the pattern in. I imagined looking at the ceiling. I wondered if it was interesting, speckled or peaked, if it had an inset to it. My lap, shrouded in black as usual and containing my other hand, the one not tugging on the edge of the tablecloth, but I did not look down. I am sure my nails are fine and do not need my attention, but I want to check. Ignoring these impulses became my secondary focus while my primary was to listen to him. It was considered attentive to look someone in the eyes when they are speaking from the heart, wasn’t it? He seemed to mean what he was saying. I wanted to believe his intentions were good. I think he did. I took note of my own skittish brain. Why can’t you just listen, why are you so easily distracted? What are you doing, mind?

I had been going into any romantic or sexual connection for the last few months with a pretty clear caveat that I was not well-equipped to be relied upon for emotional care or labour until further notice. I was recovering from some relationship implosion trauma and the well I had of emotional energy with which to deal with the feelings of others was very slowly refilling. There was about an inch in the bottom. That is nothing when the image in my head of this well sizes it comparable to a wheat silo.

He was explaining to me, on our second date, that he was in love with me.

He said that he felt empowered by the fact that I was so open and accepting, that he felt safe expressing the feelings he had because he knew I wouldn’t judge him. He also said that he didn’t expect me to respond in kind, that he was just happy to be in my life in a meaningful way.

He said this to me the second time we spent time together in person.

I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I inhaled, and knew, logically, that oxygen should get to my brain, but felt a bit like it would not survive the journey for some reason. Something was constricting in my chest. The air passing through my lungs just wasn’t enough.

I ignored that feeling.

I smiled and thanked him for his sentiment and his kind words. I might have reached out and taken his hand as some gesture of affection, or something to indicate that it was okay. My brain flooded with emotions. I was flattered, but I immediately felt guilty for not telling him I loved him back. I felt some shame. It was happening again. I did not know that the guilt would eat at me until I said it to him a short time later, maybe a couple of weeks. I don’t think I meant it in the way he thought I did, I also do not think I was influenced by him alone. That influence did not just come from the fact that he had said it first, or anything.

It came from everywhere.

Everything I understood about wanting to make people happy by giving them what they want, about the supposed fragility of the male ego not being able to cope with rejection and therefore to reject even a little was an act that could lead to my abuse, or about there being value in loving with an open heart and that the meaning of the word didn’t have to be what is traditionally assigned to it. About gratitude, bravery, honesty, and that love conquers all, or that it is enough. About this being a warning sign.

About ignoring warning signs.

The list went on.

There is a flavour to the “I love you” that follows the one that was too soon to be real. It doesn’t quite taste the same in your mouth as you form the words with lips round over the o’s and teeth coming together with lips over the vee. there’s a sense of the words being pulled from your lips without you quite being okay with it. The feelings accompanying it are trepidation, uncertainty, nerves. As opposed to having freely given them, or that the momentum of them leaving your throat was coming from something deeper inside of you. Something probably like your own agency. Empowerment. Safety.

Sometimes people do things, say things, to garner some sort of response. We don’t even know we’re doing it. I have done this. I have acted particularly in order to get through to an understanding by the other person, based on what I thought they would understand. I am not happy or proud that I have acted in this way. In fact, I’m committed now to speaking as clearly and as from the heart as I can so that people can have the sort of reactions they want to have, and making space for them to do that. But prior to my better understanding of myself and how I communicate, I would do and say things based on a set of information I had that suggested “people” (generally) act a way in response to the act. If i was being critical, I would call my own behaviour manipulative. If I am being kind, I call it influential.

The words are practically synonymous, but I bet a different feeling manifested when you read them each. I had a different feeling typing them. I searched through thesaurus to find words that more accurately portrayed what I meant. I glided over calculation, persuasion, conviction… none of them seemed to quite be so close and yet quite so juxtaposed.

A set of dominos begin to fall with love-bombing. The person who is professing their love might feel a set of emotions based on the fact that they have just revealed themselves in a vulnerable way. Maybe they feel a sense of relief, something akin to an exhale after holding one’s breath for a little while because they are going through a tunnel: a superstitious thing people do. Maybe there is an increasing sort of tension as they wait for the other person to respond to their disclosure. It may have taken every ounce of courage within them to admit it. Perhaps this was the first time they had ever thrown caution to the wind and just, you know, spoke their truth.

Maybe this was their equivalent of standing on the edge of the giant precipice of the unknown, uncharted waters, terrified.

Maybe this is just how they fall in love. Quick, hard, abrupt.

Maybe this is what they do to get the other person to act similarly. Maybe this has “worked” for them a million times.

Maybe they have actually never felt like this before.

Maybe they want me to react.

The person on the receiving end has to wrangle through their own feelings about “love” as a concept: what it means, what the word represents for them, but also how this has happened. Maybe they start to replay through the short exchange of interactions with the other person to scan them for some sense of how this came to pass, and are juggling that along with trying to figure out how they feel, if they feel similarly, whether that’s reasonable, whether it is safe to say out loud in response, but mostly how to react.

Maybe they’ve never had anyone say that to them before.

Maybe they don’t know how they feel about the person, but they don’t want to outright reject them.

Maybe they are used to people falling in love with them as it happens every day, so this is normal.

Maybe they’re terrified of their own feelings, have now been asked to deal with those of someone else, and it’s too much.

My cued reaction, now, is to respond with “what do you mean?”