Category Archives: Divorce

Holding On to Something That’s Already Gone

There’s a ghost hanging around in my backyard. It’s not hurting anyone or anything, so I’ve been hesitant to let it go. All that’s left of it is a silvery outline of the vibrant thing that used to live there, but at least that silvery shadow is something I can see. Something I can hold on to because I’m not ready to let go.

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I fell hard for this hemlock tree on the afternoon that Richard and I closed on our house. Somehow, in our three visits before buying, I hadn’t noticed the hemlock tree on the right side of the backyard. I was too busy looking at the RIVER…we could have a river in our yard…WHAT? I mean, trees are nice, sure, but a river? Dang.

Once all the papers were signed and the front door key dangled on my keychain, I had more time to look around. Among all the pines and the redbuds and the scraggly crepe myrtles and the dogwoods–all the ordinary trees of my life–there stood a hemlock. I’d only seen them on weekend hikes in the North Georgia mountains. Just saying the name “hemlock” made me think of Socrates and that painting of him on his deathbed, about to drink the poison. (Just so you know, that’s the herb hemlock, not the tree. These are the kinds of things you Google when you have a hemlock tree nearby.)

One September, I made a tough choice to help the hemlock. A cherry tree crowded it from one side. Daddy and Joe told me that they could cut down the cherry to give the hemlock room to fill out. Cut down a cherry tree? I cannot tell a lie–I thought they were crazy to sacrifice something beautiful for a conifer. Couldn’t they both stay? But Daddy and Joe knew more about this sort of thing than I did, so I gave the OK–I chose the hemlock over the cherry. I hid inside while they brought the cherry down. Their advice proved right. The hemlock flourished and its deep green needles erased the memory of the cherry tree.



Those needles and tiny cones have been fading for a couple of years now. I told myself that it might be some kind of molting process. Maybe this was something that hemlocks DO now and then–turn silver and drop all their needles. The fading started at the top one year then worked its way down the trunk. The bottom branches were still green! It could bounce back, right?

I didn’t want to admit it–the tree was already a ghost by the time I accepted it. One day, a handyman looking for work rang the doorbell. He handed me his card and said, “I can clear out trees–like that big dead one you got in the back.” I practically clutched my pearls at his temerity. People could see it from the road. I had to deal with the ghost.

It’s an eyesore now. And that gets me thinking about Fartbuster and our divorce and the end of relationships in general.

I’m missing what it used to be and holding on to what’s left of it. I’m holding on to something that’s already gone.

It took a year to break from Fartbuster. We separated our daily lives when he moved out. We separated our finances when he stuck me with all the bills and the mortgage. We still went to therapy and planned on getting back together, but my love for him was turning silver, eaten away from the inside after his affair. I filled my own weekends. I went to work. I read books and I wrote and I walked the dogs and I went to movies–all on my own. I built myself a pleasant life. But when it was time to really sign the papers, I sat on my therapist’s couch and sobbed, “How can I live without him?”

She called Bullshit on that real quick. “Ashley. On a daily basis, what does he add to your life?”


One drama soaked phone call and this gaping hole in my heart where I used to be able to trust people?

She helped me see that I was holding on to something that was already gone.

Last night, a cracking thunderstorm rolled through after dark. I was sitting on the sofa when a deafening pop shook the house. It was loud enough to make the cats skitter and Huck’s ears stand up. My first thought was, “Did it get the hemlock?” Will my decision be made for me?

Like with the end of most things, the decision has been made before we let it into our hearts.

I got up early this morning to write. I’m sitting here on the screened porch in the black dark of pre-dawn, waiting to see if the ghost is still here.

It’s Going to Suck

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

It’s been a tough week and it’s ONLY TUESDAY.

Tonight, I talked with a friend who is going through a hard few months, and today was especially awful. I shared with her another bit of advice from my sage friend, Robin. You might remember Robin from last week and that thought she once gave me about the worst thing you can do for someone you love.

You know how, in tough times, people often say, “It’s going to be OK” when they’re trying to provide comfort? Well, when Fartbuster and I were divorcing, I said, “It’s going to be OK” in front of Robin one day.

She shook her head gently and said:

“Oh, no, honey…It is going to suck. You are going to be OK.”

And that is the truth. Tough times are going to be tough. That’s why we had to make up a whole nuther word to describe them because “good times” didn’t work. Death of a loved one sucks. Divorce sucks. Parenting struggles, health problems, foreclosures–all that messy shit we live through every day SUCKS. But YOU are going to be OK.

Share that encouragement with someone today, whoever needs to hear it–even yourself.

Nailed It


It’s not really “home” until you hang stuff on the wall, right?

I spent a few hours today at my friend’s place, helping her hang stuff on the walls. She’s one of the Cool Kids. It’s been a rough year. Hanging pictures had been her partner’s task for fourteen years. Now it’s not. So the Cool Kids showed up, like we tend to do.

This wasn’t like the last Cool Kids operation where there was serious back-breaking work to get done. This day was about making an apartment into a home–finishing touches and being present. Susan brought the dog a ball. Nicole arrived with homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs, even a little bag of freshly shaved Parmesan for topping. Libby made a cake…with a nipple, but that’s a story for her blog. It sure made the birthday girl laugh. I brought prosecco, disposable champagne flutes, and a laser level. Erica contributed the hammer. Even Heather, who couldn’t be there in person because she was driving home from her father’s memorial out of state–Heather supplied a chocolate stout and sent pictures from the highway.

We sat on the floor with glasses of wine and listened to the ones with freshly broken hearts talk it through. We cried. We laughed. There was a lot of nodding and dabbing of the corners of the eyes. I rolled the ball across the floor for the dog. She brought it back. The dog wasn’t possessive of her mama, like she is when they come to my house. I think she knew Mama was safe. We are all in the same pack.

When it was time to get to work, we asked our friend how she wanted her home to feel. Where should the cowboy painting go if it’s her favorite? What should she see on the wall when she walks in the front door? What does she want to see while she’s lying in bed? How about this lamp here? That bookshelf there? What if we moved the couch to this wall? OK, what if we don’t.  Do you want something in the hallway or should this go in the kitchen?

She wasn’t 100% sure. It’s so hard to go from us to me. From we to I. To have to put that favorite picture in the desk drawer so it doesn’t hurt. I thought of the Michael Feinstein song “Where Do You Start?” that goes, “Which books are yours? Which thoughts and dreams belong to you and which are mine?” I sang that song over and over when I spent a day separating Fartbuster’s books into neat white banker’s boxes.

Hammering a nail into the wall is tough, because it’s a decision. It’s saying, “This is where I’m going to be.”

cowboyLibby whacked the first nail. Turns out that she and I have divergent approaches to hanging stuff. While I scrounged around for a measuring tape, stud finder, level, pencil…she eyeballed it and WHAM. Picture hung. Next!

And it worked. (Well, after I scooched it just a smidgen to the right and three inches down.)

I was the one who did the math and the measuring and the hammering when it was time to hang the cowboy painting, but it was Libby who took it one step further and hung our friend’s lasso and favorite cowboy hat on the facing wall to complete the tableau. I put the lamp in the logical place and she came right behind me and put it in the beautiful place. The place where it lit up the painting and brought it to life.

It all worked.

When you have a tribe, a pack, “your people,” you don’t ever have to face things alone. You get your tall friend to mark the wall and your short friend to hold the painting and your logical friend to use the level and your friend with panache to add the finishing touches.

On our own, we were afraid.

Together, we nailed it.

The Gold Bug

Green Beetle With Brown Legs by Jan Vincentsz van der Vinne

Green Beetle With Brown Legs by Jan Vincentsz van der Vinne

I went on a personal archaeology expedition last week and got choked up on a little gold bug. A yellow plastic beetle, to be exact.

Ever since I read that journal that I wrote while my marriage to Fartbuster was ending–“Bless My Stupid Heart”–I’ve been trying to recall more about that time of my life. After 15 years, the big events stand out, but the minutiae of our ordinary life together has begun to fade. I started keeping gratitude journals about a year before our marriage went up in flames, so I pulled out the really old ones, the dusty ones in the bottom drawer of the nightstand and I began to read.

I spent 3 hours reading through 2 years worth of gratitude journals–a tough two years. I was prepared for the awful days, those days when I wrote terse little entries like, “Well, at least I have myself” or “Now I know the truth” and “my neighbor came over to check on me when she noticed I was parking in the middle of the garage.” I turned the corner down on those pages so I could come back to them when I need to.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the days just before those awful ones. It’s so had to look back and see what I was genuinely grateful for the day before my whole life blew up.

In the detail of thousands of entries, my old life assembled itself again. The hollyhocks that grew higher than the windows in the sunroom. The way my dog, Zoe, shivered after her bath. Margaritas at his grandmother’s house on Christmas night. The lazy Sunday mornings when I woke up with my feet entwined with my husband’s. A new Judybats CD coming in the mail. Reading Oxford American magazine. Pecan rice with a roasted pork tenderloin. That time we installed the dog door without arguing. Painting the bathroom a terra cotta color and talking about going to Rome someday. Walking the dogs in the evening when the whole neighborhood smelled like dryer sheets. Dusting bookshelves then finding myself rereading a favorite book. Valentines. Nicknames we gave each other.

About every 20 minutes of that 3 hour journey through my grateful past, I had to stop to cry. Once, I got so sad for my younger self that I tiptoed into Carlos’ room to listen to him breathe those deep little boy sleepy breaths.

It wasn’t all bad, that life.

It ended so badly that I have trouble remembering that it wasn’t all bad. I wasn’t stupid to love Fartbuster. Most days, we were doing our best.

That came clear for me when I read one little line in a journal that brought a dear memory back through all the pain:

“a little gold beetle in my drink at dinner.”

gold beetleI don’t remember how I ended up with a yellow plastic beetle–it doesn’t matter. One night, I tucked it under the covers on Fartbuster’s side of the bed. He saw it and jumped. We laughed. The next day, I picked up my drink at dinner and there sat the little gold beetle on the bottom of the glass. A few days later, he found the beetle in the toe of his shoe. For weeks, we traded the gold beetle back and forth in pockets, the sun visor, on the towel bar, in the cereal box.

It was fun. We had fun.

When your heart is broken by someone you trusted, it’s so hard to remember the good times. It’s hard to accept that those days were just as real as the months I spent in that middle place of fear and pain.

The muddle of it all reminds me of an idea from Hermann Hesse, one of Fartbuster’s favorite writers: “Oh, love isn’t there to make us happy. I believe it exists to show us how much we can endure.”


Bless My Stupid Heart

A Woman Reading by Camille Corot courtesy Met OASC

A Woman Reading
by Camille Corot
courtesy Met OASC

Fifteen years ago, I kept a journal of sorts for a writing exercise. Each morning, I wrote three pages of stream of consciousness writing. This afternoon, I read it for the first time since then.

Oh, bless my stupid little heart.

I thought he was my best friend. I thought he loved me. I thought I couldn’t live without us.

I was writing those words while Fartbuster was sneaking around and cheating on our marriage. I was so clueless. So much of it was devoted to me trying to convince myself that it was all going to be OK. So much of it was explaining away how he treated me. So much of it was about how my insecurity was the REAL problem. So much of it was me trying to be the reason it was going wrong so that I could be the one to fix it.

One morning, I wrote about how the night before, someone had rung the doorbell at 7:45 p.m. I had found myself hoping that it was Fartbuster, surprising me with a big bouquet and a spontaneous laugh. No, it was a teenage boy selling the newspaper. And in my writing, I chastised myself for being “tough” on Fartbuster when he did finally get home at 8:30. Eight thirty on a Wednesday night and I beat myself up instead of him.

One morning, I wrote about how he was helping out around the house more. How I had returned home from a Saturday outing with a friend to find that he had washed the sheets. Now I wonder what he was washing away. My heart is tightening up in fury now, just thinking about that Saturday, fifteen years ago.

It hurt my heart to read that journal. I skimmed. I fumed. This woman I am now, this wiser woman wanted to judge my younger self for being so dumb. I gave my younger self some grace. Trusting someone you’re supposed to trust isn’t a bad choice. Being a lying asshole is a bad choice.

She wised up, eventually. That mess didn’t ruin her. I’ve come so far, but I’d still like to give her a hug and a good talking to.

A Blender Family

family-76781_640“Mommy?  Who’s my stepmother?”

“You don’t have a stepmother, sweetie.”

“But you’re Sissy’s stepmother.”

“Right.  I’m Sissy’s stepmother because Daddy was married to her mommy but now he’s married to me.”

“So Daddy is Sissy’s stepfather?”

“No.  Daddy is Sissy’s daddy just like he’s your daddy.  Bob is Sissy’s stepfather.  A step is someone who’s married to your parent after your parents decide not to be married anymore. You don’t have any steps because your parents are still married to each other.”

“Do you have steps?”

“Yes!  Nana is my stepmother because she’s married to my dad, Papa.  Papa and Grandma Janice had Aunt Gay, Uncle Joe, and me.  Then when Nana and Papa got married, Aunt Brett became our stepsister.”

“Is Sam my stepsister?”

“No, Sam is Sissy’s stepsister because her dad is married to Sissy’s mom.  But you know what?  We just say sister.  Sam is Sissy’s sister.  Sissy is your sister.  Aunt Brett is my sister.  We’re a blended family.”

“What’s a blender family?”

“It’s when people are married and have kids then they decide not to be married to each other anymore.  If they marry someone else, then you blend the family together and your family gets bigger.”

“Like mixing fruit in a smoothie?”

“YES!  Exactly like that.”

“So how many times has Daddy been married?  I know YOU married a LOT of people…”


Excuse me, little girl?

The Empty Boat


"Returning Home" Shitao  (Chinese, 1642–1707).  Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Returning Home” Shitao
(Chinese, 1642–1707). Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Today, I had a conversation with a friend that reminded me of the Taoist parable of the Empty Boat.  It is a teaching story attributed to Zhuang Zhou, a Chinese philosopher who lived 2500 years ago.  Here’s how I tell his story:

Imagine that you are in your fragile boat, rowing across the river at dusk.  Out of the gray darkness, you spot another boat heading straight for you.  You call to it, announcing your presence.  There is no response.  You watch helplessly as the boat floats ever closer to you, on a collision course.  You shout.  You wave your arms.  Your panic rises along with your rage.  You shake your fist at the boat but it comes right at you.  The boat collides with your skiff broadside.  Your boat is shattered and you spill into the water.

Now, imagine that there is a person in that boat.  How do you feel?  What do you do?  You focus all that energy and rage on the one who has done you harm.  You have been wronged!

Then clear your mind.  Imagine the same scene–you on the river at dusk.  Imagine that other boat rushing towards you, but it’s empty.  The empty boat.  There is no one who has wronged you.  There is no one who ignored your plea.  Even as you tip into the shadowy water, there is no one to shake your fist at.

It’s just something that happened.

“It is what it is.”

“Shit happens.”

Many a time I have found myself dumped into the river by that empty boat.  Oh, when I got soaked by Fartbuster…I shook my fist plenty.  I shouted and cursed.  I waved my arms.  I wanted to blow up his boat with him in it to take my revenge.  I considered swearing off boats altogether.

Eventually, I quit focusing all my energy on the REASON I was in the river and just started swimming to the other side.  I let it go.  I remember confessing to my therapist that I didn’t want to give up on him after ten years together because I just KNEW he was about to turn the corner and become the wonderful person that he couldamightashoulda been to me all along.  She said, “No, this is as good as he gets.  He’s doing his best.”  She wasn’t running him down–she was encouraging me to live in reality instead of in the world that might be waiting around the corner.  She was right–he was doing his best and I deserved better.

Sometimes you have to throw a fish back in the river so it can grow some more.

Sometimes you have to swim for your life even when you politely have said, “No, thanks, I’ll stay up here on the bank because I don’t want to get my shoes wet.”

Sometimes you have to quit trying to figure out who is rocking the boat.  Let it go.