to be a hickman.

Yes, this is 5'4" me carrying my 6' something younger brother.
Mother, father, sister, brother. Yes, this is 5’4″ me carrying my 6′ something younger brother.

Do you know the history of Hickman?

It’s my maiden name, and sometimes people who’ve only ever known me as Faletra chuckle when I tell them.

“Yes,” I say when they ask, “Are you a hick, man?”

I laugh, because yes is an honest answer; we kind of are sometimes.

My name is Faletra now, and I’ve married into a great family who has loved me as their own for the past 8 years. Blessed, I would call myself, to have two great families.

But biology reminds me: my name is Faletra, but my blood is Hickman, down to each cell, red and white. I’ve often wondered where the name came from, from where previous Hickmans hailed, what they did, how they lived. Did they live with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, like my father? And what of diabetes, like my grandfather? Or cancer, like my grandmother who died before I knew her? Did they know intimately the tumultuous up and down of anxiety and depression, of bipolar disorder, or panic attacks? Did ancestral Hickmans find life to be beautiful and exhausting at the same time, too, as we do? Were they mad at God? Did they trust him anyway?

1003247_10152147889035715_202762790_n
My father, grandfather, and younger brother. “This could be a photo of four generations if you’d give me a son already!” says my father.

To be honest, the specifics do not matter. Because whatever our history was or is, it has made the Hickmans full of a kind of soft, unassuming strength that some people just plain miss. We are a redemptive, glimmering, loving people. Yes, we have our shortcomings—and lots of them, but what lies beneath our scars and divots and short tempers? What are the stories behind our fears and anxieties? The paths Hickmans have walked have been full of thorns and bristles, burning coals and frigid terrain.

The Hickmans are tender (yes, even the men, in their own rugged way), but they fight and thrash against the tumult and the crashing waves that try to knock them down. If anyone has raged against the dying of the light, it is my mother and father. If anyone has been knocked down by wave after wave and still managed to stand up against them, strong and sometimes all alone, it is my brother. They are generous and compassionate. They love when it is hard. They give seventy times seven chances. They fight their demons instead of pretending they have none. They do not sweep their troubles under a Jesus-rug, as I like to call it, or pretend that everything’s just a-okay.

The sad thing is, through the years, some people have decided that kind of authenticity and truth is too much.

People have left them behind. Walked away in their time of need. Swept them to the side, out of their path and line of sight, like they are salted snow, a melting and dissolving eye-sore in the midst of an otherwise seemingly sparkling crisp winter.

It’s a pity, I tell you, because underneath everyone else’s sparkling white snow is the same load of shit, and at least my parents have the balls to call it shit when it is actual shit, and then they get their hands dirty cleaning it up.)

But I (profanely) digress.

Same eyes, same soul.
Same Hickman eyes, same Hickman soul.

This is the narrative of Hickman: we greet pain and loss, anxiety and grief, loneliness and confusion, and we tell it to kindly fuck off because there is still life and marrow in our blood cells and bones.

On my toughest days–the ones full of pain, of anxiety, of tears, and “this life is too much,” and doubt and fear, and “Oh, my God, why? I cannot stand!”–I remind myself that I, too, have Hickman blood, and if I have even just one thousandth of the same strength and tenderness it carries with it, then, by God, I am going to be okay.

I love you, Daddy, Mommy, and Bubby, and I am so proud you’re my family.

we are what we always were.

tumblr_ngyhuw9iqy1qfdnuto1_1280

To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.

Clara Ortega

Meet Bubby, with his blue eyes (we have the same eyes) and hipster hair, thick-rimmed glasses, long limbs, giant feet.

He’s my baby brother. His name is Jordan now; we don’t call him Bubby. While through infancy and toddler years, he was round and chubby–short features, ruddy cheeks, with a generally displeased look upon his face–he has since stretched and elongated into a six-foot-something young man, complete with stubble and a mischievous grin.

He is the reason I laugh whenever I use thyme in my cooking because at family gatherings, we enjoy the most terrible of puns solely to annoy everyone else. Do we have enough thyme? I don’t know where all the thyme went. Oh, no! We’re out of thyme! Do you think it’s thyme to go? Well, just look at the thyme. I think it’s thyme! What thyme is it? THIS THYME!–holding thyme seasoning in the air. Our puns—and our lives—are better shared together.

We are so much better together.

But we are adults now. Where has the thyme gone? (I couldn’t resist; so sorry.) How did the Hickman children get here, now, in our early twenties, with so much behind us, and still so much more ahead?

Yet, we are back then, too. He will always be my baby brother. And I will always be Sissy. We are synchronic.

We are close. Picture Meg and Charles Wallace from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. We share something bizarre and sixth sense-ish; even through the tough years when we argued and spouted hateful things and stopped talking, that special closeness was still there, hiding behind the turmoil and turbulence of growing up and being unsure how to love one another well.

Jordan was a quiet, stoic young child with a profound, intuitive mind, juxtaposed against my sometimes arrogant, always stubborn verbosity. (Sometimes I think we switched places when we became adults.) I imagine his juvenile mind stewed and bubbled with ideas and cognizance that most children do not have and few adults ever develop. He had dreams–prophetic dreams; his inner mind was lively and intuitive enough to keep him engaged, so he felt little need to express himself verbally. He grunted, pointed. For a long while, he did not speak, which naturally raised some concerns about his development. (Turns out he’s wicked smart, which I always knew.)

I knew exactly what he was saying even though he never said it. Mom says at the dinner table on more than one occasion, Jordan would grunt from his chair.

“What, Jordan? Use your words.”

Grunt. Groan. Point. No word.

“What do you want?”

Grunt. Groan. The pre-cry face–scrunched nose, quivering lip.

“Mooooom,” I’d groan, exasperated. “He wants mashed potatoes.” I probably rolled my eyes, too.

Sure enough, he wanted mashed potatoes.

This could be Hickman mythology–a legend passed down from my parents to us to encourage Jordan and me to remain as close as we were at that age, but I believe it to be true. Jordan and I have an understanding of one another that doesn’t require talking or even being in the same zip code. We always have; God-willing, we always will.

In elementary school, during lunch one day, I remember hearing of someone in Jordan’s class teasing him. I saw him from across the lunchroom, and I knew he was upset. I marched over there and gave the whole table an earful. Nobody messes with my baby brother—my baby brother who was afraid of staircases descending into dark basements and would make me take the first step, my brother who needed glasses with lenses an inch thick in order to see, my brother who was so good at anything he put his mind to but so humble and unassuming.

He doesn’t need me to walk down the stairs first anymore.

I have watched him grow up. Sensitive, intuitive, and possessing a strong sense of justice, my brother is very much like our mother. He also has the hilarity, the work ethic, the determination, and the charisma of our father. He is brave and outspoken, and even more stubborn than I am. He’s confident, highly intelligent, and knowledgeable. He works hard. He makes hard decisions. He runs his mouth (ahem, often).

So this is what it’s like to watch your baby brother grow into a man you are proud to be related to.

I do not feel overshadowed by him, but I cannot help but see all the things he has done that I have shied away from. He takes risks; he is calculating and smart. He is not afraid of losing, but he’ll work as hard as he can to win anyway. He speaks up. He’s decisive. He brings laughter wherever he goes, as well as random facts about the effects of caffeine on the body and lectures on organic chemistry.

He told me today that, if he were to get any tattoos, one would be an anatomically accurate heart on his chest, and the other would be an epinephrine molecule. I can’t think of a more perfect tattoo for him.

“Why epinephrine?” I asked, even though I knew exactly why. (I know him well, after all, and he’s told me all about epinephrine at this point, as well as about various other organic compounds and chemicals.)

His eyes flicker. “Well, epinephrine is your body’s fight or flight mechanism. You take risks, you go out on a limb, and your body produces epinephrine. So, you know, take risks, survive, all that.”

I nodded. “Fight or flight… Physiologically your body still gives you a choice. So even if you feel cornered, you still can choose to fight.”

“I didn’t think of that,” he said.

He didn’t think of it because he already knows to stand and fight. His tattoo would advert his solidarity, his oneness with himself, and his ability to stand his ground. And the heart: his confidence in himself–all parts of himself, from his bosom–the metaphorical heart–to his intellect and knowledge–the anatomical heart.

I will always be amused by this anecdote because it reminds me how we are so strikingly different in this respect. Jordan’s anchored heart, his survival instinct juxtaposed against my tattoo of choice: on my collarbone are birds taking flight, with the eager lyrics of the hymn by Robert Robinson, asking that the Lord might bind my wandering, fickle heart to Him. I see it each morning in the mirror, and I am reminded of my wayward, woozy heart’s need for solidarity, for a tether, for guidance. I am reminded of my propensity to fly away, to flee, to wander; it cries out for my heart to find rest.

For a couple years after my undergrad career, I was working a job that was far below my skill level, not utilizing my degree, and quite frankly draining the life out of me. My mom told me once that Jordan was indignant that I was settling for as long as I did. He knew without even asking that I was afraid to take a risk, to put myself into the career I wanted because I didn’t want to face rejection. I was depressed. I didn’t think I could do what I was feeling called to do.

“What the hell is Kelsey doing? She needs to be teaching,” he said. “That’s what she is supposed to do. She’s a teacher.”

Little did he know that his words would tether my heart to my dream again, giving me the gumption I needed to take the risk of potential rejection in order to pursue something I love: teaching.

——

When my mother suffered a brain aneurysm three years ago, my brother and I were faced with emotions and fears that neither of us handle gracefully: loss and the possibility of death, grief, mortality. As classic Hickman children, we dealt with it with relative silence. After an emergency brain surgery that very well could have taken her life, Mom, inundated with pain and subsequent painkillers, broke the silence with her slurred and yet somehow sharp words.

“I almost died.” And then she laughed.

The words and the laughter were angular, jarring, inconsistent with the fuzzy figure we saw lying in the hospital bed, our mom who looked nothing like our mom. She didn’t know it wasn’t funny yet–it was too soon–and even though her words were muffled by medication and pain, her face and lips swollen and red, her visage wholly unrecognizable and pallid, hearing her and seeing her was like cutting open a wound that had scabbed over. It was like jumping into an ice bath.

One of my mother’s eyes was completely swollen shut. Bandages concealed the other. Probably a good thing because we would have only seen cloudiness and pain. I had not yet met my father’s eyes because I knew what they would show, and I did not want to know until I had to that the situation was grim. My premonition was enough.

I had not looked at Jordan’s for the same reason, nor he mine. We know what it means to look one another in the eye; we know what it means when we choose to avert them, too. Our eyes would have confirmed the gravity of the situation, would have validated the immense but unspoken fear, would have confirmed what we did not want to know: It will be a miracle if Mom makes it. We didn’t want to grapple with it until there was no other choice.

We have blue eyes, Jordan and I ; in fact, Mom and Dad do as well. It’s our eyes that most people say give us away as relatives. It’s more than just that they are blue; my theory holds with the cliche that eyes are windows to the soul: my brother and I, along with our parents, share a soul. We are a soulful people, and watery blue like our eyes, possessing quiet strength, stubborn but adaptable, a slow impetus for change as we trickle down our path but also make that path our own in some way, carrying surprisingly more than what one might expect.

When Mom woke up and spoke those words, we were forced to meet her there in the pain, in the reality, the fear, in the grief, there, swimming in the clinical blues of a dim hospital room. She had dealt with the pain; we should, too. (I didn’t deal with the pain well.)

I will never forget the moment when Jordan’s and my eyes locked, watery and tired but also relieved. At least now the fear was mingled with hope. It was dark in the room, but I saw what I needed to.

Our eyes gave us away, as they are prone to do: sheer and long-suspended terror mingled with pending grief mingled with relief and a dash of hope. In that moment, we acknowledged and admitted to one another everything we had kept hidden, without words: I’m terrified, this was hell, thank God she woke up, what if she hadn’t, and what now? followed by, I am scared witless, too, and this was hell, but she did, and how in God’s name did she?, and I don’t know, and I’m sorry.

——

Blue eyes and freckles, we share, but there’s more.

I see my same cerebral, internal processing in him; we careen into other worlds when we let our pensive natures take over. We trail off; we stop talking mid-sentence; we space out.

We work hard, and we do not take kindly to failure. We are competitive and stubborn.

Sometimes we forget to take care of ourselves.

We love to laugh, and we are fluent in sarcasm.

When life gets real, we’d rather sit in silence than share the nuances of our emotions.

We both are terrible liars, and we have that nasty habit of smiling when we are uncomfortable. (No poker face at all.)

We are distraction-mongers; give us Facebook and Tumblr, Reddit and video games, books and studying so we might ignore the harsher realities of life and the feelings that come along with them. We will wrestle with abstract theories easier than our personal empirical realities.

We put Worcestershire sauce on meatloaf, and we handle well a strong drink.

We are not fond of mornings, and we’re a bear without sleep. Coffee is our lifeblood.

We aren’t great at vocalizing emotion or sentiment to one another, so in earnest, we sandwich the mushy moments between some well-placed wit or sarcasm, some silliness or nonchalance.

We have big plans, lofty dreams, and even bigger questions about life. We get lost from time to time, but between the two of us, we have enough hope to find the way back home.

—-

We are what we always were to one another. Time (thyme) won’t change that. We will always connect on a level we can’t articulate; we will always find ourselves safe there, loved and cherished, in a place of effortless understanding and appreciation. We will fight; we will get angry; we will call one another names. But it will always be because we care and know deeply who the other is.

His soul will always tell me to take deep breaths, to laugh, to be silly and goofy, and to not take myself too seriously, to chill every once in a while, but to be serious enough about my dreams that I pursue them. His soul might also use some f-words and tough love, injected with lessons in organic chemistry and various physiological processes of the human body, but somewhere in there is the mushiness of his heart.

I hope my soul tells him something equally worthwhile, probably injected with lectures on why the English language is the way it is, the benefits linguistic descriptivism versus prescriptivism, and many, many monologues about Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

10176247_10152808853790715_2094102795317521817_n 10313980_10152853899350715_2740965521980864970_n

Wishbone

His leaving of her is like the pulling of a wishbone–

the pulling apart of two things, once one,
from one another–
purposely–
each at opposite ends, wanting the same thing–
furious
for the fuller fraction of something firm, real.
They test
the tight flexibility like a bow pulled taut to kill,
like the Fates and their vital thread.

And what was once one is cleaved in two.

He is left with more
or less
her heart, and she
with a heart
less.

Needed.

I wrote words a couple days ago that needed to come out. To be honest, I did not know what they were until they were out. Writing them was healing and defining and painful and invigorating all at once.

As soon as I pressed publish, I was so tempted to delete it. I wanted my words out there. But I also wanted them to stay in. The drama, the emotion, the sadness… Too much. It was too much, wasn’t it? I felt foolish, emotional, needy, dramatic.

But part of me was lighter, relieved, and hopeful, too. The words I had been carrying we’re heavy, and it felt like maybe they were no longer only mine to carry alone.

My mother texted me with the compassion and empathy only a mother can have–a mother whose pain is so much more than mine, so much more life-altering. I’m sorry, she said. It sounds like you are in a terrible flare-up,she said. Please do not worry.

Compassion and love that I needed. Acknowledgement that I needed that yes, this is hard. You are not dramatic.

Another friend texted me that she was so sorry that I even knew how it felt to live in chronic pain. She was there for me if I needed her. She read my words; she felt them. Even in my inability to speak these words aloud to her, she respected the way I expressed myself, and she responded in love. You are strong, she said.

Love I needed. Acknowledgement I needed. I’m strong. I can do this.

I had dinner with another friend–a new one, a woman I want to get to know better. And she said she didn’t know my whole story, that she didn’t need to, but she loved and appreciated who I was and couldn’t wait to get to know me better. I told her the same the best I could with a lump in my throat.

Friendship I needed. Affirmation I needed. You’re worth knowing. You have something good to offer the world. You’re not as terrible as you think. People enjoy your company.

I wonder if I would have heard their words if I had decided to keep my words inside. I wonder how they could have possible known I needed love, support, friendship unless I had told them.

I have to stop expecting that people know what I need while being unwilling to express a need. If I’m going to write about what it means to be vulnerable, I should allow myself to be vulnerable.

To be honest, Nick hadn’t even heard me say anything aloud to him. He read my blog post, and that was the first I he had heard my feelings expressed in any way. He knows I process through writing. He let’s me do that.

He said more words I needed:

First, stop doubting your writing. You’re phenomenal. And second, I knew you were feeling all of this even if you didn’t say it aloud. I just know you.

I am known, and he’s still sticking around. So much breathing room he gives me, and yet he doesn’t push away if I need to cling on tight.

Expressing a need and being open and vulnerable often leaves me somewhere between feeling relieved and feeling foolish. I am so terrified of neediness, of codependency, of weakness and failure, of being misunderstood or discredited somehow, that I tell myself a good friend, a strong person, would just press on and handle things on her own.

But it’s amazing how much easier it is to breathe and be when I let people in once in a while.

Vulnerability

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (Inigo Montoya, ftw!)

Vulnerability. Openness. Intimacy. Buzz buzz buzz. I fear these words are becoming empty and meaningless. Christians throw the terms around like we know what they are, but they’re becoming buzz-words. Christianese, even.

Small groups and Bible studies say that they want to create a dynamic that is conducive to vulnerability. Leadership experts say that good leaders are vulnerable and open. Pastors and clergy explain that churches need to be safe places for vulnerability and authenticity.

I’m getting frustrated.

Why? Because the words are losing their meaning. We just assume we know all know what we’re talking about. Call me crazy, but I think the first step toward vulnerability, intimacy, authenticity, etc. is maybe talking about what the hell those things are in the first place. We can’t pursue it if we don’t know what it is or what it looks like.

We can grasp the basic premise of vulnerability. We understand that it’s necessary for deep relationships and intimacy. But when you cry for vulnerability, and she cries for vulnerability, and I cry for vulnerability, I wonder if we’re actually crying out for different things and calling them by the same name.

I would argue that oftentimes, we are. We often confuse openness with vulnerability, and vice versa.

So what’s the difference?

I consider myself a very open person–for better or for worse. I don’t mind talking about who I am. I like to discuss what makes me tick, what makes others tick, what life events have formed their identities, what traumas have birthed their insecurities, their fears, their triumphs. Most times, I don’t mind expressing my opinion, if conversation permits. I’ll tell you how it feels to have parents who are fighting painful illness and disability. I’ll tell you how much it sucks to deal with chronic pain. I don’t mind saying that I have anxiety or that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing with my adult life. Why?

Because I like people to know me. Part of that may be my personality type; as an INFJ (introverted, intuitive, feeling, judging–so I find it easy to connect with others), I don’t like shallow conversation. I jump right into the deep end, and I want to share who I am, what I’ve experienced, what I believe–and I want you to as well. I like discussing things that matter.

I will show my scars. I will speak of the demons that have come and gone and the ones that I’m still fending off. I will tell you about my darkest moments, if the context or situation is appropriate and if I think it will benefit our friendship.

(Note: That doesn’t mean I don’t find it difficult or exhausting, nor does it mean that I necessarily open up for the right reasons all the time. Often times after sharing part of my story, I am terrified and insecure, constantly wondering what people think of my story, if they believe me, if they think I’m foolish, if they think I was just trying to get attention, if they relate at all, etc. And then there’s the reasons behind opening up and sharing, but that’s another topic entirely.)

Vulnerability is more than openness. Oftentimes, we view openness and vulnerability as one in the same, and they aren’t. If openness is telling you about my darkest moments, then vulnerability is lighting a lantern and inviting you to traverse all the dark places with me. It’s more than showing you my scars. It’s letting them bleed in front of you. It’s more than talking about anxiety. It’s letting you stick around when I’m having a panic attack. It’s more than telling you about how much it sucks that my parents are sick and in pain. It’s letting myself weep and mourn over it and allowing you to see me in that moment.

Openness is sharing your story; vulnerability is letting people inside your story. It’s letting people not only hear about the skeletons in your closet, but to see them, to feel them, to help you rid of them or accept them or confront them.

Openness leads to vulnerability leads to intimacy. I can choose to stop at openness and go no further, or I can light the lantern and take a step into the darkness with you alongside me–which is why I’m choosy about who I am going to be vulnerable with.

To be open is to share about you. But to be vulnerable is to share you–unapologetic, true, 100%, genuine, dirty, mucky, beautiful, sinful, messed up, tear-stained, glittering, weak, terrified, but strong and determined you. Sometimes that means expressing a need. Sometimes that means admitting a weakness or acknowledging a hurt. Other times, it means saying things that are hard to say but need to be said. Sometimes that means showing a side of you that people will not like. Sometimes that means rejection or conflict or pain or insecurity. And that’s okay.

I am open. Sometimes too open, sometimes not open enough. But I am not quite vulnerable, and it’s because I’m still learning what it means for me to light my lantern and invite those around me into my darkness. I’m learning who it is I am called to be vulnerable with, and I’m learning that it is not everyone I meet. I am learning what it looks like to be unapologetically me while still striving for more. I am learning how to use my openness for the good and the healing of others and not just for myself. I am learning how to share my story in a way that invites the important people in my life into my story, into the depths and crevaces.

(Note again, sorry. I want to point out that I intentionally said “important people” and not just “people.” Being vulnerable with everyone is not a good idea. And being vulnerable with just anyone is equally not advisable. Be choosy. Be intentional. Be smart, be wise. Don’t just let anyone down into your dark places and skeleton closets. Not everyone will help heal. Some will hurt.)

Oi! What a painstaking process living life can be when you add other people into the mix (says the introvert).