The Elephant Blanket: A Requiem

I’ve spent the last thirty years of my life being astonishingly open about everything that seems to matter: My depression, my love life, my sexuality. But there’s one thing I’ve always kept a secret from the Internet:

My elephant blanket.

My elephant blanket was mine.

My elephant blanket was given to me by my Aunt Esther when – well, I say five sometimes, three on others, but “young enough when I could remember her giving it to me as a gift.” My Aunt Esther was one of those eclectic artists, the sort of strong independent women who zig-zagged between forms because it amused her, and she made me a thick-stuffed quilt shaped like an elephant.

She made one for each of my cousins, if I recall – I think my cousin Kelly got a lion. But my elephant blanket was blue and purple, with a big white eye and a little smile, and whenever I was uncomfortable or scared I cuddled my elephant blanket.

And I never stopped.

When I was in college and scared I was going to flunk out, I cuddled my elephant blanket.

When I was alone in my mid-twenties because my fiancee left me and I was facing a vacant apartment for the first time in my life, I stared out into a street in Ann Arbor and cuddled my elephant blanket.

When I was Uncle Tommy died in my early thirties, leaving me facing a future without my best friend and closest confidant to guide me, I cuddled my elephant blanket.

When I had a heart attack and was in the ICU waiting for a triple-bypass I might not survive, I wrote what I thought might be my last blog entry and cuddled my elephant blanket.

And every time I thought of Aunt Esther.

That blanket was – is – what centered me. It was – is – a straight line back to my childhood, a physicality that has been a constant, a piece of fabric and love that is scented with all that I’ve ever been. The elephant blanket has been there through joy and pain, through all my adolescent angst and my adult understandings, and I never discussed it on the Internet because it was not meant for you.

That blanket was – is – my secret feelings, my history, my internal life. It was the part of me that sometimes got shown to my most intimate partners and my best of friends, a quiet introduction to this aspect of me that nobody else got to see.

And now Aunt Esther is dead.

She lived a good life – made it to 98, made a lot more art, had a supporting, loving family. And every time I saw her, I tried to explain what that elephant blanket meant to me – that it was my secret heart, that her off-handed gift of a half-day’s work of love back during my childhood had led to a lifetime of comfort, a lifeline of comfort, a treasure that nothing else could replace…

She never got it.

I tried, but she never got it.

Now she’s gone, and what I think of are the small gifts we leave behind that nobody will ever know about. The other day, someone reminded me that when they were young I talked them out of suicide. I had little recollection of that, but apparently my kindness on a good day kept them going, and for that I am grateful, but…

We give elephant blankets all the time, don’t we?

Giving gifts we don’t, can’t, understand? Treasures infused with beautiful, personal meanings, seeds that grow and blossom in ways we never could have intended?

Don’t our kindnesses survive us when our bodies won’t?

I think of Aunt Esther and of course the first thing I want to do is cuddle my elephant blanket, but this time it’s different because she’s gone and holding it reminds me that this gift that’s lasted me half a century has now outlived the woman who made it for me. And it’s still the same blanket, this threadbare collection of stained quilting – I’m terrified to wash it, lest it fall apart – but…

She gave me a gift, and never realized.

That’s my prayer today; that we all be Aunt Esther sometimes. That a good life consists of gifts that, like the elephant blanket, deepen in meaning, that become coping mechanisms, that become a part of life itself.

They say to be kind. What they don’t say is that sometimes your kindnesses outlive you. That sometimes your kindnesses are strewn behind you in a haphazard fashion, that kind word that kept someone going, that twenty dollars that was a saving grace for someone in an impoverished moment, that quilt to a child that they clutched when they were 45 and couldn’t understand why their heart was failing and was this cold ICU the last room they would ever see?

Be kind. Be flagrantly kind. Be so kind that your kindnesses take flight like dandelion seeds swirling into the air on a warm summer day, settling into places you could never have imagined, creating beauty you will never see with your own eyes.

Make an elephant blanket. Give it to a kid.

And hope.

A Reminder: You Don’t Have To Propagate Right-Wing Talking Points.

The election’s over, and in the weeks to come you’ll see lots of dubious, right-wing takes on election “fraud.” And if those folks come at you in your comments, let me remind you of two things:

  • Your space is a platform, wherein you grant people the right to speak to the folks who follow you.
  • The insidious thing about bullshit is that it if you don’t know the facts, bullshit sounds plausible. If you have one person arguing that the Earth revolves around the sun, and you have another person arguing that the sun revolves around the earth, to someone who doesn’t know any better, both sides look like they have a point.

Refuting right-wing propaganda seems like a good thing – you’re participating in the free market of ideas! – but like all free markets, the marketplace of ideas needs a little regulation.

Because in many cases, lending credence to an idea by debating it gives the impression that there’s actually a controversy. It doesn’t matter how outlandish the idea is – Mr. Rogers was actually a secret assassin for the Yakuza – if you have two people debating it hotly in national headlines, eventually some people will become convinced that “Mr. Rogers, silent slaughterhouse” is a fact, and those who weren’t familiar with Mr. Rogers’ past will actually think, “Does anyone really know?”

The answer is yes. Yes, we do know. Mr. Rogers was not an assassin, he was a robot who learned to love.

Point is, if you control a space – your Twitter account, a blog, your Facebook, even a FetLife account – you allowing someone to blather on about unsupported inconsistencies in the election lends them your plausibility to anyone who’s not in possession of actual facts. You’re not refuting them, you’re giving them oxygen.

And you’re not obligated to. If someone’s talking absolute bullshit, then shut them down. If the marketplace of ideas really led to only the truth being disseminated, we wouldn’t have jamooks peddling the same hoary, long-disproven, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. They will, of course, speak in other places, but those places can be made smaller so they don’t rope in new converts.

Is that you being afraid of free speech? Well, the debate rages on, but it’s certainly you doing your part not to host irresponsible speech. Facts should matter, and if some whackadoodle is pushing some skewed world view that’s divorced from reality, you need to realize that those skewed world views can sound plausible to the ignorant.

I myself believe that “free speech” involves more than letting any accusations flow unceasingly. You have to back them up with facts – not just layers of bullshit designed to confuse, but facts. And once someone has failed a certain number of times to present facts, it’s not wrong to say “I have standards here, and you have failed to meet them.”

(And if you’re a conservative complaining that we should all allow different viewpoints to post, talk to me when Fox news clutters their airwaves with constant debates about Universal Basic Income’s effectiveness and whether a significant amount of police are spousal abusers. They don’t. And they know why.)

Feel free to post your own truth, of course. I’m not saying never to post a Snopes link, or some deconstruction of Qanon. But if there’s someone spewing BS in your personal internet space, recognize that’s a hook to potentially lure someone else in.

You should feel no compunctions about shutting that down.

There’s Two Ways To Make A Relationship Last For A Long Time. One Of Them Involves Being Casual.

The other day, I wrote a whole essay on my therapist’s statement “A relationship’s strength is measured by how well it survives trauma.”

Which, as I said, doesn’t mean a weak relationship any less meaningful, or impactful. It just means when the rubber hits the road, you won’t have that relationship any more.

Now, that had the unfortunate side effect of implying that the longest-lasting relationships were the strongest relationships. But there’s another way of ensuring your relationship sticks around for a long time:

You do everything you can to avoid putting stress on the relationship.

That’s how a lot of “friends with benefits” relationships work – you very specifically show up with the intention of having a good time, and if you have any problems, the relationship is designed to leave you no room to discuss them without automatically becoming the asshole. You shape your whole relationship around this concept that there’s no emotional ties – and even if ties develop, the agreements you’ve had require you both to conceal your feelings.

You can keep a relationship going like that for a long time. But you do it by ensuring that you keep trauma far away from it. It’s like building a bridge out of toothpicks and Elmer’s glue and then ensuring you only let Matchbox cars drive over it.

Other long-term relationships survive by compartmenting – that cliche of the old married couple who does nothing together, him hunting and her going off to book club, ensuring they don’t disgrace themselves in a divorce both of them see as unacceptable by minimizing their time together. They don’t really support each other so much as stand next to each other – but for them, that’s better than violating what they see as the sacrament of marriage.

Again, they stretch it out by reducing the load.

Which is a balance that, I think, every seriously mentally ill person has to face at some point. As someone with severe depression, if I go to my wife to handle every bit of the trauma that just accumulates in my brain from day to day – harmful thoughts that appear without anyone having to do anything bad to me – then I’ll wear her out, constantly dumping on her. So I extend our relationship by finding other ways to vent, and only coming to her when it’s serious enough to deal with.

(This isn’t theoretical, by the way. We almost got a divorce in the early years of our marriage because I brought every distress to her, and became such a pain in the ass that she fell out of love with me. If you have light enough mental issues that you can bring every trouble to your partner I am glad for you, but there’s a subset of mental illnesses where asking your lover to handle all your problems shifts your relationship into a caretaker mode – and while there’s some overlap, there’s a huge difference between “loving this person” and “being obligated to suppress your needs to look after them.”)

So you can make a relationship last longer by putting less trauma onto it. But there’s an important caveat to this:

**Not every relationship needs to handle *all the trauma*.

There’s a weird idea in Western culture that a relationship should be designed to be a vital support mechanism. And admittedly, most people find supportive relationships to be more fulfilling in the long run…

But there’s nothing wrong if you just want the sex from someone, as long as both of you are okay with that and not just settling for the sex because you think that’s all you can get.

There’s nothing wrong with having light friends who won’t be there for your darkest hour – sometimes you just need someone to talk about your hobbies with.

There’s nothing wrong with light relationships, so long as that’s not all you have! Having a support system that also incorporates elements of “This person makes me laugh” isn’t a bad thing, so long as you’re realistic about who’s who. I mean, I try to be a good friend to many, but if you need me to help you move, I’m not that guy.

But I’ve known some people lightly for years, and those relationships have been great because I know where we stand. The buddy I go to movies with (at least in the covid-free times). The sexy friend who I occasionally exchange lewd snapshots with. The comet who I visit whenever I’m in town for a night of shenanigans.

Are they Serious Relationships? No! But not every relationship needs to be Serious. Some of the more enjoyable relationships can be those buddies who you go years without talking to, then suddenly cross paths and catch up with effortlessly.

Will they show up at the hospital to take care of you if you have a heart attack? No. But should that be your standard to keep a relationship going?

So yeah. I wouldn’t suggest the “loveless marriage” route, because that’s asking people to forsake other serious relationships to hew to a pact neither of you is made happy by. But as for the rest, if you find yourself constantly overloading your buddies until they leave you, maybe it might be better to find a few staunch allies you can rely on, and then consider starting all your other relationships as “casual friends” until you see whether they organically grow into load-bearing friendships.

Those relationships won’t support much – but that doesn’t mean they support nothing! Just make sure you know what you want.