before and after

It’s difficult to be in the midst of a tough time in our culture. We put a great deal of value on before and afters, on skipping through the tough work with a montage set to a soundtrack, and therefore making it difficult to live in the moments that don’t show a dramatic transformation. There are two types of failure in this model – the failure of being stuck in “before,” and doing the difficult work of trying to transform.
The types of transformations matter, too – weight loss, home renos, completing a school program, any sort of emotional journey with a clear arc. We love stories, and transformations make great stories when they start with “things were bad. I was overweight/the house was ugly/I had a dream of becoming an architect/I was an alcoholic.” Then “I worked hard. It was hard.” Bonus points for setbacks and dramatic struggles. Then, finally, the triumphant conclusion! The skinny person/beautiful kitchen/career fueled by passion/sobriety! It’s so inspiring, isn’t it?

No. It is not. It isn’t inspiring, not after the first time someone reads this story and tries to apply it to themselves and realizes that they don’t have “what it takes.” What it takes is usually money, or the appearance of money. People need money or credit or other people supporting them in order to transform themselves, and when those things are not available, the transformation is doomed before it begins.

In my case, the transformation isn’t ever something with a dramatic before and after. I won’t be losing weight, or renovating, or transforming my career, or kicking an addiction. I mean, maybe eventually some of those things will happen (I’d really like to go back to school one day), but for me, the transformation is from someone who thought she’d figured out who she was to someone who has had the rug pulled out from under her and doesn’t know how to rebuild without her whole life falling apart around her.

I wish there was more of a cultural narrative around the process. Sometimes there is, but I’ve found the terms to be couched in a specific context. Process is often associated with a work scenario, journey is an overused word in spheres dominated by women trying desperately to get a place in Feminine Lifestyle Empowerment (terminology credit Kelly Diels, who is amazing*), and so on.

I live here now. I live in between before and after, because I think after is only going to be achieved once I die. I’ll be forever unpicking the tangle of who and what I am. I want to be okay with this, but it’s really hard when there’s a neverending cultural drive to wrap up the story. The craving for an ending makes sense, but that doesn’t make it helpful or accurate. And my story will continue – I have already discovered that this story, this tangle, this road is coming from my mother and grandmother and back into my ancestry, and it is already being handed over to my children to carry on. There’s no ending there.

My responsibility, as being the primary carrier at this point in time, is to work at unpicking the tangle, keep walking forward and choosing the path that seems best, tell more of the story in the way that makes the most sense, knowing that I’m maybe adding new knots and changing the plot and altering the path for my children to have to pick it up and deal with my choices.

And look, I’m wrapping up this blog post so that it has a conclusion and I can post it, because the drive to conclude is key to our humanity. But equally key is not actually finishing the story. The messy, knotty, complicated work of humanity doesn’t exist in a one-dimensional plane. It exists in time and space. It is always in progress.

*Note from the future: I originally linked to Kelly Diels in this post, but I no longer support anything she does since I learned that her work is built on the backs of a lot of black women whose work she’s stolen. Fuck that.