“I Don’t Get It:” What I Learned From My Middle School Math Teacher

2003. Middle school. Frosted lip gloss and Cleopatra bangs.

I remember this day in particular because it was the first time I felt wholly and genuinely stupid.

I’ve never been stellar at math. It doesn’t leave room to ask “why?” which is a problem since this is my favourite question. It burns holes, and I can’t seem to ignore the smoke.

Mathematics don’t offer any grey areas, no half-truths, no “sometimes y.” It was a taxing gig, spinning my brain to sponge in order to absorb the steady stream of numbers. For years it had come like honey from a jar; slowly and sweetly, as things have a way of coming when our spirits are being nurtured. I struggled with scribbled equations, but this was the first time they had ever held me back.

“CAN YOU ADD, MISS KRAUSE?!’

In this moment I am pretty sure that even my toenails are sweating, and thinking about this isn’t helping the situation. He is wearing a sharp, straight line where a smile should be.

I didn’t do my homework, and the reason was equal parts “don’t get it.” and “don’t wanna.” As you can probably guess, neither of these are considered an acceptable response when called upon. The two of us are standing in front of the whiteboard, and the eyes are like pins in my back. He wants a definitive answer. I am terrified. Somewhere in the stormy silence, I pull a 2.

“THERE IT IS, MISS KRAUSE!”

I am so relieved that I could pee. The thing is, I don’t hate the guy. Later he tells me that I am smart and that it won’t be hard forever. He reminds me that ensuring my homework is done means ensuring that things like this won’t happen. “Have a great day, Miss Krause. See you tomorrow.” He’s my favourite teacher again.

I adapted to his intense environment, and I could do this because he grinned twice as much as he snarled, he told pretty good jokes, and, let’s face it: I wasn’t the only moron in the room. The humiliation was distributed pretty evenly.

June came, and brought with it moving boxes and report cards. I got a 46% and a note that said “Miss Krause is very polite and makes a great effort.”

I don’t know what became of him, and for a long time I didn’t see this experience for the transformative encounter that it was. I’m not saying that I lose sleep over this, but it absolutely had a hand in shaping my mindset.

It had never really occurred to me that this kind of behaviour was manipulative and inappropriate, because I was under the impression that it was a consequence I had created. It didn’t register as psychological abuse since it was only really directed toward the morons. I didn’t realize that we weren’t the morons in the equation.

I don’t remember how to cross multiply and I don’t know shit about fuck when it comes to geometry, but my time there was not wasted. Some of these lessons came much, much later, but he taught me a useful thing or two that stuck.

For one, I recognize that life is far too fleeting to spend it under the thumb of people who allow us to believe that we are stupid. Though there are multiple intelligences (8, count ’em, 8!) some of us still believe in a single route to success. We spend our lives placing ourselves into tiny boxes with pretty bows in order to distract the people we wish to impress from our blisteringly true, raw nature.

For another, as I’ve mentioned before, there is nothing wrong with being wrong. What I understand today is that it’s the lengths that we go to in order to appear as if we’ve always got it right that are the most destructive. We lie and we cheat and we hurt and we run from the life we want, all because we’ve got this idea that we shouldn’t want it. One minute we’re supposed to be striving for more, and the next we’re told to expect less.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I know that the things we love doing are not hobbies; the term is far too simple. They are an escape from the pointed fingers of expectation. They are an expression of all that is felt, spoken and silent. They are the bright side and they are the bandage covering the wound. If you ask me, there’s no glory in giving up the good for someone else’s “should.”

I’m not saying that we should run from struggle; it’s inevitable. I just think that if we’re going to bite back, we should be fuelled by the force of what it is that we long for; for whatever it is that we love.

P.S. Mr. Math was always up in my grill about showing my work. I like to think I came through.

Questions, Answers and the Spaces In Between: What Not To Say When Meeting Someone

Over the last three years I’ve been continuously rubbing up against my own reflection.

It’s been a productive, albeit hellish experience. I’ve been able to identify and talk about what hurts, and I’ve learned a great deal about the message I want to leave with other people. In learning this, I’ve noticed that there are some questions that are better left burning holes in brains than spoken like swords. If you were following me when I wrote “What To Expect,” you’ll know we’ve been down this block a time or two. There’s a question that sucks, and I’ve only just learned that it sucks. If I could reach into your chest cavity and pinch your heart, I imagine that it would feel a lot like it does when you ask

“So, what do you do?”

I know. Karlee, you sensitive Susan! But look, it’s like this: You ask said question and I awkwardly clarify by asking “Like, for work?” With the answer almost always being “Yes,” I am left feeling like a frozen turkey thawing right there in front of everybody. (I know it’s weird but try to let yourself imagine this one. How humiliating.) I come back with “Oh, nothing. I don’t do anything,” because the space between us is too crowded to say that I take my meds and write some words and pluck some strings and go to the grocery store on a good day, and that on a bad day I just don’t get out of bed. This shame is misplaced, but it lingers there anyway, a silent suggestion that my means of earning an income are what make me interesting.

I know that this isn’t the case. I know that it’s a staple phrase in introductory conversation. It’s so normal that it blooms on my tongue on occasion.

But what if it didn’t have to be?

What if you asked me if I believed in ghosts? What if I asked you about the weird, useless talent that only you seem to possess? I think I might tell you that there is nothing I can’t imagine, and maybe you would say that you’re double jointed while demonstrating some creeptastic hand gesture. Maybe we’d laugh and decide that we were very fond of one another.

I’ve come to the realization that the way you make a living holds such a small fraction of my interest in knowing you. (Unless of course you are a professional taste tester OR you spend your 9-5 beating on the craft that lights fireworks in your chest.) I am sure you are this brilliant in all settings, but I’d rather hear your easy laughter than get to know only your furrowed brow and busy mind. I want our souls to kiss as much as our egos.

So, since you asked:

I wake up every morning and I dance madly to “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine. I’m learning to play guitar because I have an irrational fear of my brain turning to mush. I have a therapist who tells me not to should all over myself. I’m relentlessly ringing my own bell with messages that say “I love you.” Sometimes I cry and type. I’m sick and I’m not sorry. I want to write music and cultivate my character.

And, if you’re into that kind of thing, knowing you would be another tick on my ever-growing tally of bright sides.

Plot Twist: Karma Is Actually a Really Nice Lady

There’s this shirt hanging in my closet.

It says “Karma is only a bitch if you are.”

When I first purchased the shirt, I thought it was funny and clever. Now, rolling the cloth between my fingers, I realize that this theory feels completely foreign to me. I imagine all of the times I must have referred to Karma as “bitch,” and I’m not sure if I want to laugh or gag.

 I’m not knocking anyone’s beliefs. It’s just that I’ve had some weird experiences, and if you’ve been following me awhile, you know that they shape my perspective more than anything.

The words “Karma is a bitch” bounced around between my angst-ridden teenage friends and I A LOT.  So often I’m surprised we didn’t get smashed and have them tattooed. I have clear memories of being a regular offender, and I have managed to narrow my saying this down to the following 3 reasons:

Reason 1) Someone was a bag to me after I was a jerk to her cousin after they were obbvv starting shit with my girl Trina.  (Sidenote: I have never actually had a friend named Trina.)

Reason 2: A guy dumped me and I had intrusive thoughts about him developing relentless bacne.

Reason 3: I drew a major blank in heated conversation and needed to sound effortlessly wise and biting.

That worked for a while. The phrase was like a cigarette in the way that my pulse would slow as I exhaled responsibility and watched it dance unabashedly, stopping only to kiss the night. Then one morning I woke to find that I was 20 years old…and also that my life had fallen apart. It didn’t occur to me until right then that this might be karmic retribution. I was trapped and frantic for days inside of this completely weird spiral of hindsight.

“Is this about that time I stole the book about serial killers? Am I paying for the day I publicly outed a classmate for crapping in the outdoor pool? Is it because I left spiteful notes and lied about being at bush parties among a myriad of other things I can’t possibly begin to remember now?”

For all of the years spent in fear of being wrong, it was suddenly very difficult to remember being anything but. Very slowly I am learning that this is not any way to live. Very slowly I am purging this guilt about a trait so very human. There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. There’s no possible way to avoid it. I know that we all say “Nobody’s perfect” with voices flat as prairies, but if that’s the case, why don’t we ever want to admit it? Aren’t the hard things hard enough? These devastating things, these traumatizing, crippling, painful things…Aren’t they heavy enough without also wearing the notion that we DESERVE them?

I finally met Karma, but she was nothing like the way I’d written her hundreds of times before. She was less of a fiery, vindictive force and more like a mirror. As I become more comfortable being wrong, I can allow others to be wrong without the need to rub their faces in it. I am aware that every hostile situation I’ve seen has my fingerprints on it. Action and reaction. I think it’s strange now, the way one raises a voice and another a fist in a frantic effort to cover what we already know.

I don’t deserve to be sick. You don’t deserve to be sad. We have about as much control over these things as a parade has over a midsummer storm. We are going to fuck it up repeatedly, and then time will pass and it will be more of a scar than a festering wound. We’ll call it a “learning experience.” I hope we can listen to some Radiohead and pity ourselves before making the phone call that says “I’m Sorry.” And when that phone call comes, I hope we can say “I know.”

That obnoxious shirt has an entirely new meaning to me. It basically goes like this: What I receive is a reflection of what I am putting out. I know you’re probably picturing me wearing palazzo pants and drinking a smoothie the colour of the forest floor, but hear me out: Now that I don’t have to approach things with a sense of competition, I can just be kind. I can ask how someone’s day is and genuinely mean it. What I’ve noticed so far is that people are both surprised and delighted by a kind word and patient eyes. More importantly, they almost always return it.

You can look into any glass surface and see your sharp cheekbones tangled in vines of fine lines. But if you look at the face of the person in front of you, I mean REALLY look at them, you might discover hints of your soul in their expression.

What You Knew: Loving Someone With a Mental Illness

When you fell in love with me, there were two things that you knew.

The first was that I was going to make you late. It made you crazy at first. Your hands would busy themselves by moving in and out of your pockets, and my eyes would busy themselves with your eyes, darting around the room to avoid glaring at me. I couldn’t help finding it wildly adorable, which only slowed my pace. It was never long before you would give up on being timely and sit down to observe the storm. Missing shoes, heavy breathing and frantic laughter.

The second was that I was going to make you think. I wasn’t the type to go easy. On the nights you spent away from home, our phone calls would be flooded with the questions of the universe. I’d ponder what it all meant. You would tell me that being unsure was the grand adventure. I started to tell you what colour your mind was, and you answered me with soft, sleeping breath.

When you fell in love with me, there were things you didn’t see coming. When we stumble into such fondness, it is usually under the impression that love will tell us what we need to know. Love speaks, and it speaks often, but sometimes it only comes through in riddles. It’s not what we know, but what we learn.

And we learned

The first time I was hospitalized, you watched as a colossal dose of Haldol attempted to rid my head of the things so real that they couldn’t be. It took with them my peripheral vision and short-term memory. The doctor said that the side effects were temporary. It became very clear that my condition was not. It was when we learned that no amount of affection could balance my brain chemistry.

We grieved the loss. You laid next to me as I stared at ceilings and you told me that the emptiness would be encompassed by something more beautiful than I could imagine. It was never a skin I could shed at my convenience, though I tried. I said “this is not my life.” You said “it’s just part of it,” and you smiled when you told your friends and family. I learned (and forgot, and learned again) that it was my life, and not a life sentence.

We learned, and somehow we are always learning. I wonder sometimes how we ever managed to remain tangled in the shadow of a mind that tore at us from the inside. I think of all that our love brought, how much of it you must not have seen coming. I imagine that it’s a little like a Chinese gift exchange. I laugh and say thank you for not returning me. You tell me that I’m exactly what you were hoping for.

No amount of affection could balance my brain chemistry, but it didn’t stop you from giving every ounce you could muster. There wasn’t any fixing, just healing. You had no idea what to expect, but you trusted love to tell you what you needed to know.

I like to think that it did.

Love Has Paws

Sometimes I just don’t feel real.

It’s like I’m outside of myself, suspended in the air, taking in the scenery. When people speak to me, I feel their words entirely. I feel them and I want to say “Congratulations. I’m sorry. I love you.” I receive the signal and yet, my response doesn’t get through. Message failed. Return to sender. Blinking lights and wasted stamps.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Please believe me when I say that I want more than anything to talk. I love your voice. It’s a tiny, persistent stream of light seeping through the cracks of my closed blinds. I know you don’t believe it, because your phone never rings. When I tell you that my phone is broken, you will glance at it and tell me that it looks just fine, certainly fine enough to give you a fucking call once in a while, and I will cradle that phone between my shoulder and my ear waiting for a dial tone that will not come.

Every so often, I lose control. It happens quickly, taking me under and spitting me out like a clumsy tourist meeting the ocean for the first time. But it happens slowly enough that I can see the change occur, wishing always that it could just stop here. It’s a rollercoaster climbing the tracks and it’s me knowing that no amount of fearful shouting will stop the descent. Every so often, I forget what it is like to move my mouth without asking my disorder for permission. It is in these moments that I am not certain I was meant for this life.

People often ask me what saves me, what makes it worth it to stay anyway. It’s not my ambition or potential driving me to pave a successful path. It’s not the need to prove anybody wrong. It is not what I would miss. It is always the small things that keep me rooted here, feeding me purpose.

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It’s small things like the slap of a tail on the floor when I make it past my door frame and into the living room, only to rest again. It’s a warm body on cold feet, and somehow, the only silver lining that stands out. It’s a wet nose meeting my temple, a joyous greeting to dissolve every goodbye I’ve ever heard.

Though there are always many more reasons to stick around than can be seen in moments such as these, this is often all I can cling to, and I do so with tenacity, because it is enough. There are 2 furry, strange beings who literally depend on me for survival. I am responsible for them in a way that I am not responsible for anyone else on this vast and mysterious Earth, and for me, that’s magic. It’s 4 cups of food twice a day and a serious dose of tenderness. In moments when words are heavy, there’s none to carry. All that is left is their pulse and mine whispering of our fondness of one another. In between breaths I can think clearly, and I remember that my phone is broken, so it’s probably time I got a new one.

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As I watch them frolick and tumble through drifts of snow, I wonder what a happy dog looks like. I decide that it would look a lot like mine. A warmth comes over me then, contentedness wrapping itself around a heart that I thought was expired. I silently mull it over, and I smile knowing that I have helped more than I have hurt. I have made another being so ecstatic that they are rolling in their own shit. In this moment, I am here, I am real, and more present than ever.

Why Not To Be A Jerk: Notes From A Recovering Bully

Sometimes there’s no other way to slice it than with the truth; I used to be an asshole. I know a lot of inspirational tales about the survivor, but I almost never hear much about how life turns out for the bully. (It makes sense if I think about how many people actually want to own up to their bullshit.) Since I try to live with no shame in my game, I’ll tell you how it goes. I can’t tell you how not to be an asshole, of course. That one is all you. But if you’re reading and nodding along, that’s a good step. I’ll just tell you WHY not to be an asshole instead.

5 Things That A Bully Knows

1. Words are glass. Small, jagged shards that wink as they hang in the light. These moments last only seconds, but these seconds in this light make the shards look as much like the truth as they felt leaving our lips. It is not until we lay sleepless inside of ungodly hours that we taste the blood in our mouths.

2. We have our reasons. Reasons like self-respect and love and justice. We see ourselves as the messenger rather than the villain, for a villain would surely use his fists.

3. Hate is heavy. To rule this way brings discomfort that is felt at all times, like stacking those we dislike atop our shoulders. We do not feel discouraged, because it takes a strong person to carry this weight. We blame them entirely, all the while questioning why everyone is on our back.

4. Bullies have bullies, too. There is the one person we all know, the one who started it. The one who gave us all of our reasons. An objective perspective would tell us that the virus did not begin with them, yet we will maintain the idea that this person doesn’t have reasons; just a blank space where a soul should be. We will imagine that even for a soul that is black like soil, there is, at the very least, hope that good things might still someday sprout.

5. We are just confused. How could we not be? So few of the people we know walk around with the weight of nothing and nobody. This is not malice; it’s survival. Surely if you cease to be the one holding the saw, you become the one laying on the table.

5 Harsh Truths That A Bully Learns

1. Awakening to life’s purpose will more than likely not involve pretty pastels, no third eye, no peace. It will feel as if we are going about life, skin held together by staples while our body attempts to shed this and replenish itself. We will resist, clinging to our rough exterior as if it were worth more than it is. We will not let go until we realize how painful it is to embrace ourselves.

2. Change, the grand, sweeping kind is almost never launched in quiet, thoughtful moments. Change is brought in by heavy gusts that shatter window panes. Change becomes the guest choosing to stay; invited or not. We will adapt and flourish next to it. Or we won’t, and we’ll find ourselves brushing up against it, hearts like sandpaper, vowing that we’ll teach our kids not to be wimps, because life is tougher when you’re a wimp. We’ll find ourselves spitting glass.

3. Everyone has their reasons. Reasons that make us unimportant to them, like them to us. Reasons like pride disguised as self-respect, vengeance disguised as love and loss disguised as justice. We will not see this great wheel of reasons until we and all involved notice that we’re running in circles.

4. Nobody with any kind of character bets on the bully. To be an asshole, to fly off the handle, so far it’s (kinda) worked. However, there are VERY few areas in life in which these strategies are efficient or tolerated. One day, when our sideshow is no longer the freakiest in town, the crowd that coos and strokes our fragile egos will begin to thin until it is us and the dust. We will be remembered, but people will not find it entertaining. We become the empty vessel after the party.

5. Perhaps the most jarring truth is that we matter more than this, that our lives are worth more than we’re doing with them. Our voices are melodious when they are not being used to wound. The energy we squander on hate takes real commitment, and there are innumerable positive outlets we could use to fine tune that rather endearing bit of our character. As we turn this over we will see that almost every black, rotten part of us started growing with the hope of something good. We alone are something good. The road is a unique, authentic journey for all who travel, but the pattern of change has been the same since Moses was an angsty teen. We become who we are when we discover that we can no longer be who we were.

The Net: An Honest Conversation About the Holiday Season and Sadness

I’ve been staring at a blank screen for weeks. I’ve typed countless fragmented sentences wrapped in cheer, but none of them felt right. There was the pretty paper, and beneath it, boxes inside of boxes of nothing. I don’t get down like that, so I’m giving you guys something else; some real shit for the holidays.

I loved Christmas as a kid. Lights? The flickering ones, on the fastest possible setting before mom says I’m going to give someone a seizure. Music? That one song by Tom Petty where he sings about not wanting his relatives to kiss him at Christmas. Silly Tom Petty. Carolers? Stand there and sing to me FOREVER! Annual mass? Fuck yeah! (Kinda.)

The entire month of December was a visual smorgasbord. I can’t actually think of a happier string of days in my life, my only complaint being that more of my family liked ham more than turkey (some bullshit.) Perhaps that’s why this time of year has been the most difficult to handle for some time. Still, every December I wait in anticipation of the magic seeping into my skin so that I can have greens and golds.

I feel the sadness take hold beginning in October, but the days are still long enough to conjure up sweet visions of what joy would look like if it had a face. In November my brain is fighting, but my soul is undeterred. “Next Week. Next Week I’ll feel ready.” December comes and brings with it everything and nothing, and some wouldn’t believe it, but both are heavy.

The holidays are a painful time of year for a lot of us, for a myriad of reasons. It can be particularly lonely when we’re tripping over well wishes and brushing up against festive images of social connectedness. There’s also the expectation that everything should be peaceful and celebrated, gratitude glowing in every corner. I find it especially cruel that the time of year we feel the most numb is also the time of year that we most resemble broken records, saying things like “I’m great, thanks for asking.” and “Wonderful to see you!”

Small talk is called small talk for a reason, and the reason is that there is no room for genuine feelings inside of it. When they ask “what’s new?” I will tell them that there’s nothing too exciting. I will tell them this because there is no room for me to say

“I feel like shit. Well, kinda. I mostly don’t feel anything about anything, but, well, that’s pretty shit. It’s been 6 days since I had a shower, and more since I changed my clothes. I watched an entire season of Mad Men even though I knew that the stable version of myself would hate it, because getting up and choosing something else seemed exhausting. I’ve eaten nothing but Quaker Instant Oatmeal this entire week. There is dog hair all over my life. Sometimes I get a feeling or two and I can go somewhere, but talking to people is like driving with a flat tire. Possible, but not a great experience. I feel like the prisoner behind the glass, reaching, but unable to make contact, and all I have is this phone with which I send reassurance down the line. How can a person love life so much and still not be able to get out of bed?”

Fuck small talk, guys. Insincere conversation blows anyway. If nobody has asked you yet, I’m asking: Are you okay? Really okay? If not, that’s fine. Is there something that could be done to make it better?

Maybe for you, like me, it’s depression. Maybe you have suffered a loss and you’re grieving. Maybe you’re just unsure. Whatever it is, it’s okay to feel it (or not feel it.) Whatever it is, I know that bullshit clichés don’t remove the film that covers you. So what I will say is “Me too, friend.” What I will say is that I’m proud of you. Because it’s hard to feed the demand for happiness and stability when both are in short supply. Because you’re kick-ass and even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, it really is wonderful to have you here.

To anyone who is struggling quietly, you are very brave. Please know that being brave doesn’t also have to mean being alone. You may tell yourself that it’s not anybody else’s problem, that they didn’t sign up for this. Please remember that you are not just the space provided for another to write their name and volunteer their time. You are a jarring and magnificent example of what it means to be human. You walk that beam gracefully between two worlds and you balance so well, but if there were a net, would it be okay to fall?

Because there is a net. Sometimes it looks like mom, or a close friend. Sometimes it looks like a psychiatrist. Sometimes it sounds like collective voices saying “Hi, Karlee!” in a support group. Sometimes it sounds like the suicide hotline. And what it feels like? It feels like fear and sadness and frustration and utter relief. It feels like recovery.

If the net looks appealing for no other reason, consider this: I will never know what the inside of your fire looks like if you don’t stick around to walk through it. To write it, or paint it, or sing it. I’ll never know where the fire burned hottest, and that would be an incredible shame, because your story feeds my story and all of the great tales ever written.

This year I want to give my readers the gift of conversation instead of small talk. There is no better opportunity to call a loved one, to tell them you are thinking of them. To ask them if they are okay. There is no better opportunity to offer a hug or a smile or a meal. There is never a better time than RIGHT NOW to ask for help if you need it.

There is no shame in knowing that there are more ways to dig a grave than in the frozen ground. There is no dishonour in feelings that scare you silent. Most of all, it shows no weakness to give them up for the possibility of feelings like self love and happiness. For the realization that there is more to grass than mowing it.

If ever the wind whistles and threatens to blast you off course, and you’ve forgotten how to maneuver, forgotten to WANT to maneuver, Please don’t also forget that

There is a net.

If you or someone you care about is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK

For more information on suicide prevention, click here.