Kelly Sundberg and I became Facebook friends a little over a year go, after I read her beautiful essay on The Rumpus, which led me to her already widely celebrated essay in Guernica, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” (selected by Ariel Levy for the Best American Essays 2015 anthology.) Her blog, Apology Not Accepted, featuring essays by her and occasional guest contributors, focuses primarily on life as a survivor of abuse and the many issues that surround it – from institutional complicity, to dealing with anger and resentment, to finding fellowship, to learning how to thrive as much as survive.
Kelly is an amazing writer and does powerful, important work, but she’s also a lot of fun. She’s self-deprecating and unapologetically silly, and I immediately felt a kinship with her as someone who had lived through some deeply traumatic and painful life experiences, and through arduous self-reflection and courage, emerged kind and whole and full of a certain unmistakable lightness – the lightness of hard-earned wisdom, and having survived something potentially unsurvivable. “Some days, I am the light let in by my wounds,” she wrote in the Rumpus essay. There are those days where everything seems impossible, when the damage resurfaces and makes us raw and uncertain, and it feels like it hurts too much to even exist. But on most other days, life is so much easier, so much less dire, because we have lived through the worst thing we will ever know – or so we hope. And that’s the key here – hope. What killed me faster than anything during my long alcoholic slide was not the shame and guilt and violent recklessness, but the utter hopelessness that it would ever get better.
Of course, living life on life’s terms still always has its share of bumps. Some awkward, painful moments can come out of just trying to have ordinary daily human experiences, but it usually works out just fine if you are willing to find the humor in it. Several months ago, Kelly embarked on a hilariously charming and wholly entertaining social media diary of her crush. His name was not given, but the accompanying hashtag #hotprof said all we needed to know. She generously posted daily, sometimes hourly updates on the slow-burn evolution of the infatuation, as she saw him at the gym and the university, at first from afar, and then as they began to interact. Dozens of us read along, proffering advice and giving support. Finally, at the behest of some friends, she wrote him a message expressing her interest, and in a subsequent shiver of cold feet, she wrote to me asking that if, from a man’s perspective, I thought she had mis-stepped by acting rashly. While not knowing the nuances of the situation, I did my best to assure her that as adults we have no reason to play games, and I couldn’t see any scenario where a genuine and honest overture was out of place.
She thanked me and when I checked in a few days later, she still had not heard from him, but had resigned herself to the move being part of an ongoing exercise in open-hearted vulnerability. “I keep telling myself that it was a sweet and earnest thing to do, and that if he’s not interested it’s not because I did something to screw it up,” she said. I agreed wholeheartedly, saying “Life is too short to be anything but sweet and earnest.” Which is something I absolutely believe to be true. In my experience, it takes a lot more courage and strength to be that vulnerable than it does to be tough and pragmatic, and it is always more fulfilling, even when it is painful. A few days later, I hugged a friend who was having a really, really shitty day, and it was one of those awkward moments where afterward I felt a little sick with embarrassment. To calm the unease, I just said to myself over and over “Sweet and earnest…sweet and earnest…” If your heart is kind, then you are never fully in the wrong, no matter how it feels. The key is learning to have compassion for yourself as much as anybody else.
As time went on, I found myself thinking more and more about these ideas, and realized that they comprise the essential spiritual building blocks that make up what it means to be human: the balance between strength and weakness, compassion and justice, self-care and altruism. I asked Kelly if she was interested in exploring these ideas further through a correspondence, and amazingly, she agreed! Here is the first installment of that correspondence. We will continue publishing installments every few weeks or so until we reach the as-yet-undetermined conclusion.
Thank you for reading.
* * *
“When you’re given things kind of easily, you don’t always appreciate them. With you, I’m not worried. When it happens to you, Samantha, it’ll be forever. “
-Jim (Sam’s dad) in Sixteen Candles
It took me a long time to become sweet and earnest. I know that sounds like another way of phrasing the Picasso-slash-Dylan-esque cliche that “It takes one a long time to become young,” and I think for the most part, my attempted meaning is the same. “Sweet and earnest” seems to imply a certain innocence, but in this case, as an adult on the other side of a wide chasm of lived experience, it rather implies something acquired. Something learned. And something practiced. Which is not to say that I wasn’t always sweet and earnest to some degree. In fact, that would likely be considered one of my defining characteristics by people who have known me a long time. A great many souls start out hardened in some sense, and even in their childish innocence, would never be considered “sweet and earnest” by anyone. In our modern psycho-analytic world, it is common to ascribe any and all personality traits to early circumstances and experience – almost exclusively “nurture” if you will. But of course there is always the individual who has lived through horrendous, traumatic circumstances and emerges downright angelic in their gentleness and affection; as well as the individual loved and impeccably cared for, given every opportunity and life-lesson in goodness, and ends up moving through life lacking a single shred of empathy. That seems to me to be one of the deepest mysteries of the human soul, what qualities we arrive with in the world, perhaps even before we leave the womb.
I don’t have children of my own, but most of my friends have them. I love and care about all of them, but there are a select few with whom, from infancy, I immediately felt a particularly special bond, a deeper connection that was apparent right away. Perhaps that was more me than them, owing to circumstances and such, but it certainly felt specific and personal, the way that love feels specific and personal. I remember many years ago talking about it with a friend, who is a mother of two, and she reassured me that this feeling was normal, that we do love children differently. Not more or less (necessarily), but differently. Of course there is a potential danger to qualitative comparisons between siblings, especially explicit favoritism, but she assured me that having “a favorite” is not only common, but that the child who fills that role often changes numerous times as they grow older. It was a long discussion, and I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, but it helped me realize that love is stronger when it is specific and nuanced, and therefore relieved of the expectation that it be all or nothing.
What I’m getting at here is that as far back as I can remember, I have been a sweet and earnest type, and I don’t think that is necessarily inherent or entwined with innocence and naivete. I mean, I wouldn’t describe a single one of my childhood friends as “sweet and earnest.” I suppose I had enough carefree scrappiness and sick humor and cynicism in the mix to keep up with them, and most of us are still friends today, some 30 years on, so there was always enough there to build on. But I did learn pretty early that being sweet and earnest meant making yourself open to ridicule, even from your best friends, and that putting your heart out there meant getting it stomped on repeatedly. And yet, I never ceased doing it, even as the growing pains of adulthood and responsibility, tumultuous relationships, and the inevitable hard knocks meant being an asshole more and more often.
For a long time I was pretty reckless with that poor heart of mine, and it caused me no small amount of pain throughout my life. Of course, the flipside is that it also afforded me much joy I would not have had the same access to had I held onto it tightly. It really is true that you can only win what you are willing to risk. I have some lifelong sports teams I support, and when they lose big games (which sadly, for every sports fan, happens way more often than winning), it is devastating, thrusting me into a state of wounded malaise for days after. This invariably prompts the question from some non-fan as to why I care so much, and put myself through that. Of course, the real answer is a whole long essay in and of itself, but the short answer, aside from “That’s just what you do if you’re a sports fan,” is “Winning is worth it.” Winning it all, rare as it may be (or sometimes, as for fans of the Cubs or any team from Cleveland, extremely rare), is worth a lifetime of loss. A lifetime of grinding, near misses, last minute collapses, monumental blunders, outright betrayals, heartbreak, frustration, and utter hopelessness.
Of course I don’t mean to imply that the only goal of love is “to win”. I realize that it’s an imperfect analogy. Although ironically, that is the primary cultural model of romantic love that is propagated in our society, at least from the male point of view, and one I admit I subscribed to for quite a long time. Which is not to say that I considered the object of my desire to be merely some sort of trophy, but I did naively adhere to the cinematic narrative that as long as one’s heart was pure, and the inevitable obstacles were overcome, that the prize would be “true love.” I was naturally the hero of my own story, and I always believed that if the story was good enough (my imagination and desire were always sufficient to make sure it was), then the outcome would be some form of “happily ever after” (it never was).
My conception of the love narrative changed as my general conception of narrative changed, but I think the expected outcome remained more or less the same. Early on it was the John Hughes model, that your truest love lay right under your nose and that only the poisonous clouds of classist social conditioning had to clear before it could be realized. Or that the pain of unrequited yearning was somehow a purifying force, that being the quirky, unpopular, sweet and earnest (therefore more soulful and genuine) one would eventually pay off. Admittedly, sometimes it did. My first high school girlfriend loved me for it, and we had a loving, mutual relationship based on intimacy and real friendship. That was the Watts version. But before that was the version where I wrote poems and made mixtapes and stole the rare kiss, and then watched as she left for someone older, stronger, funnier, richer, more popular, better-looking, and all around more attractive. That was the Ducky version. Also known as the Social Darwinian version, where you will always lose the prettiest girl to the handsomest, richest guy. And here I had thought I could overcome all of that with my pure intentions, with the sheer force of my desire, and more sweetness and earnestness than the other guy could ever possibly hope to muster.
Of course it’s all more complicated than this. And throughout my adulthood, with each subsequent relationship, some lasting a few months, others several years, all ending in disappointment and heartbreak (with varying degrees of severity), and eventually (almost invariably) that person going on to marry and form a family with someone else, I have learned quite a bit about courtship and relationships and love and heartbreak and living with someone (if not marriage). It has made me wiser, as well as more jaded, and has left plenty of scars, yet my essential open-heartedness has not changed all that much.
But the biggest factor in how I learned to become truly sweet and earnest later in life was not any romantic relationship, but my relationship with myself. For nearly three decades, from the age of 12, I drank through it all, until seemingly out of nowhere in my late thirties, I found myself careening through the waking nightmare of late stage alcoholism, and for a good two or three years I was stuck in freefall, only drinking to die. My whole life collapsed, crashing down around me, I was dangerous and miserable to be around, and I had no power whatsoever to stop it. Not until I was peering literal death right in the face, eyeball to eyeball, and I had hit the proverbial “rock bottom,”was I able to surrender to it. Booze was my crucible. It scorched me clean to the bone, and by whatever grace fell upon me in those final moments, I was allowed to let it all go, and emerge from those terrible ashes, seeking a new way of being alive.
That all sounds pretty melodramatic I’m sure. I’m not sure I really have access to language that is equal to such a monumental, life-changing experience, without sounding hyperbolic. But it is a literal second chance, this new life of just over four years, that allows me to say genuinely “it’s all too short to be anything other than sweet and earnest.” I don’t think I ever stopped being sweet and earnest, even when I was a rotten, drunken fiend, but so much of it was a blur. It’s like I woke up at 39, wide awake and filled with urgency about the “one day at a time” drip-drip-dripping away of our mysterious oh-so-mortal lives. In one respect, I am more calm about it, because I truly believe I am lucky to be alive at all, but at the same time I don’t want to waste a drop of the time I have. So why be filled with petty resentments, why be afraid to be embarrassed or hurt, why worry about being cool, when love and integrity and beauty are so much more fulfilling, and just as accessible? I’ve lived through my deepest personal hell, what is any disappointment compared to that? So I have a crush on her but its clear she just wants to be friends? I’m golden! I have been touched by grace beyond my understanding. Those things no longer need to mean more than they actually do.
Which is not to say I am perfect, somehow free of pain and fear, self-pity and disappointment. Not at all. It’s just that in the face of the starkness of mortality, my greatest regret is truly the unsaid, unacted-on thing. All those cliches about carpe diem, what used to be these yeah yeah yeah, I know abstractions, I can feel the truth of them in my bones now, in the tap tap of pulse in my temples, in the pattern of motes swirling in a slant of afternoon light. Time is different now. The space is occupied with something new. The mystery is not just mystery, it’s alive. Maybe I’m talking about god, I don’t know. When I was close to death, I never saw any white light, just terrible, endless greying dark. But when I turned back from that deadly mirror, back toward the world, when the shakes subsided and the screaming blur began to fade, I could feel every inch of myself right here, right now. I could feel the hard scrape of breeze become a whisper, and the warm, fading sun once again a real and quiet center, and the pleasant ache in my once broken toe, and know I was going to be fine.
That’s hope, I guess. But it’s more than hope. I think I finally just realized that life, in all its chaos, confusion, humiliation, cruelty, injustice, and gross imperfection, is not a mistake.
Life is not a mistake.
Not in any way.
* * *
When I was visiting my parents for Christmas this past year, my mother and I were standing at her counter chopping vegetables for a salad and talking about my son. I told her how grateful I was that he is not like I was when I was a kid. He is exceptionally kind—more empathetic than most ten-year-olds—and also very honest. In contrast, I felt like I was the kid who was always in trouble. But in that moment, while we were chopping vegetables, my mom said, “You were a great kid. You got in trouble for stuff like not cleaning your room, but you never lied. You were never mean. You never tried to hurt anyone else.”
Because I had often been in trouble, I hadn’t thought of myself as a sweet and earnest child (even though the little old ladies at church had always described me in that way).
Lately, I have had a difficult time parsing the different narratives of my own life—my mother’s narrative, my ex-husband’s narrative, my friends’ narratives, my child’s narrative.
As a memoirist, I sometimes feel like I’m actively constructing my own story, which might seem disingenuous. Still, I consider this construction to be empowering. I’m choosing to be in control of my own narrative. As someone who was in an abusive marriage for nearly a decade, I didn’t get to be in control of my own narrative. I had an abuser who was actively invested in controlling who I thought I was. If he could control my self-conception, then he could convince me that his battering was my fault.
When we met, he told me how “sweet” I was, and I have since learned that, as a woman, being called “sweet” comes with a certain measure of risk; it can mean always having to be sweet, and never getting to be angry. Like all women, I get angry.
Like most survivors of abuse, anger has become a burden for me.
Still, like you, I have always been sweet and earnest in my romantic relationships, and this has caused me some pain. I am also a redhead, very silly, and somewhat impulsive. At some point, I realized that the men I was dating were using me as their “manic pixie dream girl.” It was a hollow role to be placed in, one which I couldn’t live up to. I’m quirky, for sure, but I’m also very smart, sensible, and I am no one’s muse.
The other night, my friend described a woman from his past as a muse. I explained to him that I find that word to be problematic. I told him that I had been placed in the role of “muse” too often, and the role was unfulfilling. After all, aren’t muses just an externalization of our own desires? When a muse is made real, she is bound to disappoint.
I have lived too much of my life feeling like a disappointment.
I haven’t dated much since my divorce because I don’t want to make the same mistakes that I made in my twenties, but I have discovered that, even as a thirty-eight year old, I am fundamentally still the same person I had been in my twenties. One of the great disillusionments of my early thirties was realizing that I had all of the same issues that I possessed in my twenties (plus some new ones). Luckily, my late thirties have taught me how to cope with these issues in ways that are less damaging.
For a long time, I thought that my abusive relationship had hardened me. I wanted to be hard. I thought there was safety in hardness. But I am not hard. I am as tender as I have always been.
I am just as tender with my friends as I am with my lovers, and at this point in my life, most of my energy is spent loving and being loved by my friends.
In all honesty, I am single as fuck.
This, too, is done very earnestly.
I grew up in a religious household, and for a long time, I allowed the tenets of my faith to direct the way I lived my life. I lost my faith after high school, and without the groundwork of religion to shape my behavior, it was kind of like all bets were off. There was a period of my life where I behaved in ways that were out of character.
That period lasted for a few years before I realized that I no longer liked myself. I decided to live by my own standard of ethics, which is not a list of commandments, but merely a belief that I have to try and cause as little harm as possible.
I try to be honest. I try to treat others with respect. I have never cheated on someone, or with someone. I will (very occasionally) have casual sex, but only if my partner is on the same page as me. I try to respect the boundaries of others, as well as my own.
Does this mean that other people treat me with the same respect? No, not always. But I have found that it hurts less to suffer though someone else’s poor decisions than to be disappointed in my own decisions.
I am interested in how you described the experience of coming out of addiction. For you, it was very much life or death. My experience of escaping abuse was similar. I left my then-husband because I feared that he was going to kill me. Still, I loved him. I loved the thing that was killing me. This is different from addiction, I know, but not so terribly different.
While I was in my marriage, I was very numb. If I had allowed my emotions to surface, I think I would have fallen apart, so instead, I felt nothing. This went on for a period of many years. Feeling nothing was a terrible way to live. When I left the marriage, I decided to let the feelings in.
Honestly, I’m not sure that I decided to “let” the feelings in. They just descended upon me. Still, the feelings were the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced. It was, as you described with getting sober, a sort of “grace,” and I knew that, no matter what happened to me, I was going to be okay. I had faith again—not in God, but in life.
I didn’t necessarily have faith that things were going to turn out the way I wanted them to, but I had faith that even if they didn’t, I would be okay.
My only regret in life is that I can never get back the years that I lost during my marriage, so I am committed to making the most of the time I have now. To me, this means being sweet and earnest, which also means being vulnerable. Telling that crush that I’m interested in him, even if he doesn’t reciprocate. Asking my favorite author for advice and support. Writing a stranger to tell them how much I appreciate what they’re contributing to the world. Writing a memoir (I’m discovering that writing a memoir is the peak of vulnerability). Forgiving (but only in earnest). Forgiving my parents for not supporting me in the ways that I needed when I was being abused. Forgiving my ex-husband for the things that he couldn’t control—the things that weren’t related to his abuse (abuse is always within someone’s control).
He may have been abusive, but like everyone else, he was complex, and not altogether evil. (Forgiveness is so often disappointing. Perhaps that is why forgiveness is so earnest, so optimistic, and still, so necessary. Every risk comes with the potential of disappointment.)
Forgiving myself for not leaving sooner.
Sometimes being sweet and earnest also means deciding to end things that aren’t serving me well: that romantic non-relationship that just won’t quit, the friendship that I secretly resent because I feel like I’m giving more than I receive, my idea of myself as a martyr who will do anything for anyone else.
Still, with all of the beginnings and all of the endings, I am opening myself up to the world in ways that I never have before, and the world keeps reciprocating by opening itself up to me in return. I believe that earnestness beget earnestness. Life looks better that way.
With Affection and Hope,
Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Guernica, The Rumpus, Slice, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and many other literary journals. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and a memoir based on that essay is forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2017. She divides her time between Appalachian Ohio where she is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and her home state of Idaho.