Letters as a Meditation

If we are friends on Facebook you might be aware of my daily “Creekside Chat” videos. I’m really enjoying making them — just a few minutes of conversation about something, and a reading on Sundays — because they give me a feeling of conversation with friends. This morning I talked about something that I thought I’d mention here, because I had a lot more thought about it than I mentioned in that short video. (I do try to keep those short, three minutes or so, but sometimes they stretch to five and I don’t want to push that.)

I’ve mentioned this here before, too, so I’ll just briefly mention it and move forward. Several years ago in the context of a personal restoration project, for 40 days I wrote an email to a different person in my life, telling them what they meant to me. It turned out to be a much bigger gift to me than to the 40 people who received surprise emails, although their responses showed me what a gift it was to them, to hear what they meant to someone . . . and that’s a gift I know too, from the times it has happened to me.

But you know, there are all kinds of people in our lives. When I was talking, in my Creekside Chat, I started thinking about my dad when I talked about the importance of knowing what we mean to others. For the briefest moment I had the automatic cliched thought we have about suicides — oh, if only he’d known what he meant to us maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself. But so quickly on the heels of that thought came the truth: he was a nightmare in my life. I was pregnant with my first child and knew that I couldn’t allow him to be alone with her, ever, and that was going to be awful, handling that. He wore me out, calling me drunk in the middle of nights ready to kill himself, me dancing as fast as I could trying once again to talk him out of it. His not-at-all contained rage and fury, terrorizing all of us. He broke his wife’s arm in their last fight. He spent his entire adult life trying to die, and it often felt like he wanted to take out as many people as he could in the effort. I very barely survived him, and it took me more than 30 years after his death to recover from the 23 years he was in my life.

As we drove the five hours from Austin to Tyler, the day he killed himself, his sister and I were complaining bitterly about him because we knew he was going to ruin their mother’s birthday (and of course he did — he killed himself on her birthday, a second act of cruelty to go along with the note he left blaming me). We said we wished he’d just go ahead and do it. We meant that. I meant that.

And of course he is the most extreme example of what I’m getting at, but the fact is that I couldn’t possibly write a letter to him that would feel good to him, and be honest. It would be a kind of ‘damning with faint praise’ thing. When my stepfather was dying, in prison, I was able to write a letter to him, a very brief one, and I thanked him for sneaking a milkshake to me once when Mother forbid me to have any food because I was a fat cow. He did that at great personal risk. Since he had written me a note asking forgiveness for the years of rape, and he gave me a small gift he’d made in prison, I found it (shockingly) simple enough to forgive, and to write that letter. It felt like quite a thing, that out of the 20+ years of knowing him, I had only one very small thing to say thanks for, but it was very heartfelt, my gratitude for that milkshake. I had remembered it for decades.

In a much more ordinary way, there are people in our lives whose friendship is fraught in ways that would make it harder to write an email of gratitude — like the no-longer-friend who relished my trouble and resented my happiness. Because, you know, we all have friendships of varying depth, or varying closeness. We have friends we count on in times of trouble, friends who really see us, friends who are just light and somewhere between acquaintance and friend, friends who we just expect to listen to because they have no interest in listening to us, friends whose gifts come with such very long strings that you want to refuse them. I’m thinking about taking up my daily email project again, and thinking about this more difficult category of friend, in particular — thinking about how hard it would be to find enough of substance to say in an email. But maybe there is greatest value in writing those emails, in particular. Maybe for me, having to really dig deep and look, and think; having to search a little harder; maybe that will help me value those friendships more. (Or maybe the effort will help me let go of the relationships!) And maybe for those individuals, receiving an email that came from a deeper search — that will locate those core gifts — will be more meaningful than the easier emails that relish the loud, visible gifts. I don’t know, but I’m thinking about it.

Dixie (and her mother) calls this “giving flowers to the living,” which is the whole idea in five simple words — why I’m not a poet, I need hundreds when five do the job so beautifully. That’s a great aim for today. You don’t have to do the deep hard work of finding words for the more difficult person today. Just today, just with an easy person, maybe, tell them what they mean to you. Tell them the gift they are to your life. Tell them in writing, so they can keep it. I’m still glowing from the note I found waiting for me when I woke up, and I will glow all day long. When my memory fades, as it’s guaranteed to do because ME-NOW, I can open it and read it again.

Yep. I think I’m going to start writing those letters again. I’d love to have your email address. If you don’t have mine, there’s an envelope icon in the right sidebar (in the “Find me elsewhere!” section) you can click on to email me.

xoxoxo

Shame and Mocking

For some of us, it can be so hard to be a human being. (I actually think it’s hard for all of us to be a human being, even those with shiny hard coverings who insist that It’s All Good! all the time…..) But I can say that for me, specifically, it can be so hard to be a human being. There’s the ‘human’ part, where my baser desires are always pressing against my civilized self, urging me to lash out and be as cruel to Republicans as they are to the world (why, Lori, that serves nothing, be kind), for example, but there’s also the ‘being’ part, that life-long experience of accepting and understanding who you are, why you’re here, what your gifts are, how you’re meant to put them into the world. Both are hard for me.

I think we all really know who we are, once we reach a certain age. I believe I do. I believe I know who I really am (although I’ve been so great at deluding myself over the course of my life, so perhaps I’m the least trustworthy person to ask!). And there are so many armaments in place to keep that true self hidden. Are you like this? Maybe we all are, and it’s just a question of degree, a question of our strength in being ourselves anyway.

One layer of my armament is shame and mocking myself. I did grow up at the knee of the master, on that front, but I’m soon 59. This is on me, now, and it has been for a long time. I’m grateful that a few years ago I got the actually brilliant idea to replace the voice in my head — previously held by my cruel mother — with Dixie’s voice, a voice that loves me unconditionally and thinks I am the great thing (and happy birthday, beloved Dixie, how I love you). So I lean very heavily on that voice now, and I draw on my own courage, to wade into my life here at Heaventree and let myself be myself, to wit:

# I want to take art classes. Maybe (ooh, I could start some serious mean mocking here) especially art classes that relate to myth and deep meaning. (Mocking: classes for older women wearing handpainted scarves, their glasses hanging on clunky glass-beaded necklaces….why do I do this?)

# I want to explore, with a completely open mind and heart, the big, deep stuff I turned away from. Jung, archetypes, myth, power, wisdom. (Mocking: what a stereotype you’ll be, old woman!)

# I want to sit around fires, in the dark, and watch sparks fly up to the stars, and not language that experience.

# I want to let myself loose, finally, and write poetry and not give a shit if it’s awful at first.

# I want to hurl paint around and find my very own deep vocabulary.

# I want to create a stone labyrinth on my property based on the shape that has hypnotized me as long as I can remember, and let that be a sacred place for me (Mocking: SACRED what an idiot, what a stereotype).

SO much of my mocking and shame relates to being a stereotype, and that’s always been a thing I’ve done. I almost didn’t go to college when I was 36 because I didn’t want to be that stereotype: divorced, single mother goes to college! (Luckily — and I didn’t even yet have Dixie’s voice to guide me — I snapped out of that stupidity and went ahead on, as my country people would say.) When I moved to Austin in the wake of Gracie’s death and assuming Marc and I would divorce, I feared being that stereotype: plucky older woman wraps flamboyant scarves around her neck and has a new life! (I realized that the danger built into that stereotype was that the plucky older woman comes home one night and can’t do it anymore….)

Maybe it’s just a deep sense of pride that makes me not want to be a stereotype — I’m better than that, I’m original!! — and I feel embarrassed to write that out loud. (And on the other hand, who in the world thinks, Oh boy, please let me be a stereotype!)

So I’m going to start trying this. I’m hopeful. I’m excited. I’m scared. I want to encourage myself. I want to believe Dixie. I want to live up to the me that Dixie believes she sees. I want to be generous to myself, open to myself, and ready to flower. Several of my friends have told me that they believe there is something big here for me, and I believe that, too. So come on, let’s do this thing.

the treasure that is Lit Hub

Maybe you already follow LitHub on Facebook, but I’m here today to recommend that you sign up for their daily newsletter. Every single day, it’s the email I most look forward to receiving, and I’m guaranteed at least FIVE articles that I’m desperate to read (usually all of them. Most common for me is that there’s one I feel meh about, but the rest are thrilling.). I’ve had to turn completely away from the daily political material I used to receive, because it’s just going to kill me. Every day, “the worst day yet!” Every new thing, “a new low!” And yet none of that matters. Tomorrow will be an even worse day, five minutes from now will bring a new low. I can’t watch Colbert (etc) because they all seem to rely heavily on video clips of the horrorshow, and I can’t tolerate his voice or face. So I’ve turned my body to completely face literature and poetry and art, out of desperation.

Even when LitHub includes something that’s related to politics, it’s more an analysis, a thoughtful Big Picture perspective than a reactionary bit of clickbait, so I can usually read them at a slant. Here is today’s newsletter, to give you a taste of it — and more from me at the bottom.

Lit Hub Daily
September 14, 2017

TODAY: In 1851, James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, dies.
    • From triumph to terror: how America grappled with the dawn of the nuclear age. | Literary Hub
    • 7 writers who are also great editors. | Literary Hub
    • Dealing with grief by cleaning the house: on death, loss, and Marilynne Robinson. | Literary Hub
    • “Life is heartbreak, but it is also uncharted moments ofkindness and reconciliation.” Joyce Carol Oates on Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love. | Book Marks
    • JP Donleavy, author of The Ginger Man, the “comic masterpiece…banned in Ireland for 20 years,” has died at 91. | The Irish Times
    • “Books become true, you know?” Helena Fitzgerald profiles Eileen Myles. | Rolling Stone
    • We marched day after day: A final interview with writer, artist, and activist Kate Millett. | The New Yorker
    • “I love the way he plays with our expectations of autobiography, how he frustrates our desire to find the perfect leftist, activist, Latin American writer and revolutionary who is heroic in all the right ways.” Jenny Zhang on Roberto Bolaño. | The Atlantic
    • Fake news and the rise of fascism in 1920s Europe. | Literary Hub
    • The importance of sending booksellers abroad: Bookselling Without Borders launches a Kickstarter. | Literary Hub
    • “I am not always sure if I wrote it or just tried to avoid writing it and failed.” An interview with Impossible Views of the World author Lucy Ives. | Bookforum
    • 10 contemporary short stories that “do something interesting or startling or just downright swoony.” | The Guardian
    • “The bucket was half full of papery spit globs. Soon she’d be able to take it outside and add onto her project: an enormous wasp nest big enough to house a human body.” A short story by Kristen Arnett. | Burrow

Really — some pieces I might race to read first, but every single item is interesting to me. If you go to their webpage, you’ll see the box on the right to enter your email and “get the lithub daily.” I’ve been so glad to get it every day. I feel like a dwindling plant in parched dirt, and that daily email is sunshine and rainwater, allowing me to re-find myself each day and muster a bit of life.

Since I got rid of that stupid game on my phone — and although it’s not a fair test yet, since I simultaneously got a small handful of jobs that take all my time and attention — I’ve been less scattered and wasteful. Every morning I read something good, at the moment Anne Carson and Women Who Run With the Wolves. Before I started college, I was deeply immersed in myth and deep structures, and that’s when I first read Wolves. And then I went to college and studied psychology and statistics and then I went to graduate school and studied experimental design and psychological research and even more statistics and there wasn’t space for that kind of mind AND a mind that prefers mythology and literature and deep structures, so I drifted away from it into a more linear if-then way of thinking (which, not for nothing, was never my forte…..). So it’s a pleasure to have the time and space every morning to reacquaint myself with this kind of material. Anne Carson cracks and shatters my brain, and every morning after I read her, she has gotten into my speech and I hear myself thinking weird words, not my words but hers.

So literature, rah! Poetry, YES! Art, oh yes please. And LitHub as a lovely daily invitation.

Also, I’m finally reading Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning short novel, The Sense of an Ending. It is so squarely in my wheelhouse — a meditation on memory (and its infallibility) and responsibility and what life has meant, and whether what happened is as important as how it is remembered and taken in. I’ll have more to say about it when I finish, but at 80% complete, I am completely enamored. It’s likely not going on my “absolute favorites” GoodReads shelf, but it’s really wonderful. More on that later.

xoxoxoxoxo

underwater

Such a fraught word, ‘underwater,’ especially at this moment in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, and Hurricane Irma headed for Florida and the southeast coast, and Jorge up on deck after that, and the 1,200 people killed in floods in South Asia, and the 100,000 displaced in Nigerian floods. (Though ‘underwater’ probably sounds pretty great to people in the western US watching their worlds burn up in flame, as they choke on the thick smoke that turns day to night. What a world.)

And when we’re ‘underwater’ we’re in trouble, usually with financial burdens that feel insurmountable. Underwater is rarely a good place to be, or at least in the way the word is used outside of swimming. I’ve been trying to find a way to describe the way my failing memory feels, and that’s what finally hit me. I feel like I’m underwater.

This image is associated with Lidia Yuknavitch’s wrenching memoir The Chronology of Water, and it came from the promotional materials for the book. (SO, JUST TO BE CLEAR, that’s not me. Obviously!)

(Oh, and did you know that photographs of women underwater are called Ophelia shots? Kind of disturbing, as is the fact that there is a GENRE of photographs of women underwater.) There are millions of pictures to choose from, but this one captured my feeling — the way her hair drifts around her head, disconnected and amorphous and shifting and losing form. My thoughts feel like that. It isn’t a feeling of drowning, of desperation, or even anxiety, in a strange way. It’s just a feeling of being untethered. Of watching this, of seeing it all kind of float around me but I can’t do anything about it. I feel it like I’m floating, a kind of silent, weightless peering around me. What was I going to do? What was I going to do? What was I going to do? Do you know what I was going to do, did I tell you? Was I going somewhere? Oh, I wanted to say something. Do you have any idea what I was talking about? Where was I going? What was I just thinking about?

And the fluency issue I mentioned a couple of posts ago — mid-sentence, several times a sentence, the word has floated away. I watch myself and see my vaguer eyes hoping the word appears, rather than my keen eyes searching for it. My pauses are more blank spaces than intermittent moments to locate just the right word.

Luckily it’s never a “where am I” or “who are you” issue, or any of the more dementia-like problems. It’s just more like my thought processing is happening in a completely opened-to-the-air space and it just drifts out and floats there somewhere, but I don’t know where or how to get it back to me.

I don’t know what day of the week it is (only a slight deepening of my norm, which is in large part, I suspect, due to the formlessness and lack of scheduling to my days, since I don’t work in an office and I don’t see anyone on a regularly scheduled basis and the days are all mostly the same — so my fear is that I’ll be in an accident and the EMT will ask me what day it is and I wouldn’t know that on my best day! Not a sign of trauma, dude!). I generally know what month it is, at least by the middle of the month. I can read and sustain a deeply complex narrative, and I can write and sustain a through line without any trouble. I just can’t connect thought with its consequence — if the thought is, “Go get cheese,” the second I stand up I don’t know what I was going to do. If the thought is, when Marc finishes talking I’m going to tell him about X, in the next second I don’t remember what X I had been thinking about. I can still find metaphors very easily, and see deep structures and connections.

And it’s not tip-of-the-tongue, it’s not that, it’s more this floating around me and away from me sensation. Truly it isn’t a bad feeling, except in specific, like if I really do want cheese and I’ve now stood up 7 times and then forgotten, and my standing-up muscles are getting aggravated at me. Come ON! Get it together! Or else quit standing up. Sheesh.

For some reason I am not flailing against it and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I feel instead like an observer, as if I’m watching and thinking, huh, that’s very interesting. Water, yes, that’s what this is like. I wonder if I were flailing more, fighting more, if I’d keep my thoughts more readily? I’m evaluating a manuscript on resilience, and one chapter is about cognitive process (and a section of that touches on aging) so it discusses the literature on mental exercise as a way to forestall decline. If I felt more flailing about this, more panic, maybe I’d jump on those exercises. Maybe I should do that anyway. But I’d rather knit and make beautiful food. Read and write. Take walks along my creeks. Take photographs of the world. Interact with my daughters throughout the day about their lives raising little ones, enjoying that regular touch and awareness of the fine details of that stage of life. Getting to be their mother they can share this with, which is really the longest-term dream I’ve ever had.

I was telling Marc over the weekend that I’m not rushing around anymore, as I used to do. Partly it’s that my life doesn’t work that way — what would I rush around to do?! And partly it’s just that I give fewer shits than I used to. Eh, whatever. Eh, it’ll get done, and if it doesn’t get done eh, so what. Tomorrow. Eh. Whatev. Think I’ll make some tea. And sit. And read. And write. So that slowdown feels of a piece with this cognitive thing, at least in terms of my response to it. Eh. Whatever. Maybe I’ll end up remembering that I wanted a piece of cheese, maybe I won’t. If I don’t remember what I was going to say to you, so what.

In some way this is the zen ideal: I am just in the moment, and it’s a loose and watery moment, a kind of vague-eyed moment, nothing sharp and fast about it, and here I am. Thoughts connect us to the next moment, and that connection is floating and sometimes floating away, so I’m left quietly in this moment.

As much as anything, I’m writing this as a way to fully articulate this experience — for myself, and as a record. Who knows how it might change, where it might be going, what this moment might’ve meant, but I’m changing. My precious, brilliant, speedy, blue-lit mind is going at 33rpm. It’s OK. Just kind of floatey. I don’t feel despair or even sadness; instead, I feel an awareness of myself changing, and I’m watching with curiosity and trying to accept with open hands.

I’ve mentioned my Australian friend Fiona Dobrijevich before, a beautiful artist, photographer, and daily swimmer (and photographer). Her Instagram feed is a daily wonder, and sometimes I open her to a new tab so I can just pop back throughout the day to gaze at an image she shared. She has a viewbook online — look at everything, but especially look through the Body of Water collection. Maybe it’s because I’m feeling this kind of watery change to my sense of self, but it knocks me out. Here’s an image she shared a couple of days ago, and I gazed at it for hours, all together. It feels so psychologically and personally familiar.

Anything I might say after that photograph could only be irrelevant or redundant. And so ciao. xoxoxo

Arguments in My Head

I’m like a dog with a bone. Like a coral snake at a heel. I carry on these arguments (in my mind) for YEARS, fluently and passionately, and constantly collecting new data in support of my side. To wit:

    •  In my first year of graduate school, 1998, a clinical grad student named Anna said that she believed one can only really understand life as it’s happening, in the present moment. What???? I thought she was joking; she was extremely intelligent (undergrad at Harvard, first PhD at Berkeley, in some natural science I don’t remember anymore, and then second PhD in clinical psychology) so I was intimidated by her, but she loved the television show Roseanne and said it was a great example of a strong woman and that confused me. So I didn’t know what to make of Anna, but I thought that was the craziest thing ever. If ever there is a moment one can’t understand as it’s happening (in isolation) it’s the present! If I’m sitting at a cafe enjoying a glass of wine and my book and in the next instance a bomb explodes, that moment in the cafe is forever transformed. And who I am as I sit in that cafe is so wholly connected to the moments that led up to it, including the concerns in my heart, the painful or joyous memories, etc. I just realized she said that 19 years ago, which explains why I’ve finally [mostly] stopped arguing with her. I just decided she was wrong. 🙂
    • At some later point in graduate school (1998-2003), my friend Sherlock started arguing with me about whether I am an introvert. [Yes. The answer is yes.] He insisted I wasn’t. Again, he was wrong. (But I still get a little bit thrashing when I think about the argument, even though I know he is wrong. You are, Sherlock.)
  • A newer one that I’m still in the “collecting data” for stage involves the role of “bad”(/unpleasant/negative/difficult) emotions in life. In Austin, a group of friends and I were doing these writing exercises in lieu of having a book club, and the second month we tried it I asked if we would be willing to do some spontaneous writing for a prompt I’d bring. I wanted us to write about a time we were angry; I think anger is a difficult emotion for people in general, and for women specifically, and I’ve been thinking hard about it since my early 20s. I thought it might be a rich topic and could give us a lot to talk about, and I’m always wanting to know how other people handle it, since I haven’t figured that out yet. WELL. One woman in the group became enraged at me (wait for the irony….), demanding quite angrily to know “what good does that do, it doesn’t serve me so I don’t get angry.”

[Insert wide-eyed dramatic eye roll from me….I recognized this in the moment but didn’t think it wise to point out to her just how very angry she was as she vehemently insisted she doesn’t get angry.]

She aggressively attacked (well, I’d want a little lighter word than that, even though she was attacking) people who read what they wrote, asking what good it was to dwell on it. (Um…..they weren’t dwelling, they were responding to a prompt! Jesus!) Her attack on me was more personal, in response to what I wrote about. After that meeting she ghosted me. She has never spoken to me since, and she actually blocked me on all social media (and she unfriended my daughter)! SO bizarre.

So in part I carry on the argument in my mind with her because it was like hitting a brick wall, an unexpected brick wall that just flew up in front of me and then disappeared. I’m not at all interested in what her problem was, for the problem was clearly with her, but I would like to have the conversation because I think feeling all the feelings is crucial. That’s my personal understanding of things, and of course there is a LOT of data on it, and thoughtful people have been writing on this topic for centuries.

In her essay titled “Optimism,” Helen Keller describes the superficiality and contingency of the type of happiness that people ordinarily seek, what she called “false optimism.”

She knew a thing or two about difficult emotions

Most people measure happiness in terms of physical pleasure and material possession. Could they win some visible goal which they have set on the horizon, how happy they would be! Lacking this gift or that circumstance, they would be miserable. If happiness is to be so measured, I who cannot hear or see have every reason to sit in a corner with folded hands and weep.

And yet Keller saw herself as happy and optimistic, writing: “If I am happy in spite of my deprivations, if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life, if, in short, I am an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing.” Keller saw adversity as a prerequisite for real optimism. And granted, she could not simply deny or run away from or pretend that her adversities were not there, as this attacking woman professed to do, but I don’t think that mattered to Keller’s philosophy.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, also knows the truth of this. (And not for nothing, this woman is some kind of Buddhist-lite, believing that the reason one meditates is so these kinds of feelings don’t happen. HUH?) Anyway, Hanh said,

A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him. I know what evil is. … I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism then does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and everyone, and make that Best a part of my life.

Hanh knows a thing or two about difficult emotions, and he’s not who he is because he pretends they don’t exist.

However, he also understands that hiding from fear is not the answer.
“If you try to run away, instead of confronting or embracing your ill-being, you will not look deeply into its nature and will never have the chance to see a way out. That is why you should hold your suffering tenderly and closely, looking directly into it, to discover its true nature and find a way out.”

It’s very hard to do with anger, but my point goes well beyond anger, and encompasses fear, sorrow, devastation, boredom, impatience, irritation, heartbreak, rage, all those feelings that people lazily capture under the umbrella of “bad” or “negative.” It’s so completely wrongheaded, as far as I’m concerned, that I can’t even grasp it well enough to make a sensible counterargument. They aren’t pleasant to feel, that’s for SURE. They aren’t feelings anyone would want to linger in any longer than necessary, but oh how important they are. I’ve learned more from being present with my fear, my sorrow, my anger, my heartache, than I’ve learned from being present with my bliss, which I also easily access.

I hope I don’t keep arguing with her for as long as I’ve argued with Anna and Sherlock, though I might because this is as nonsensical a thing as I’ve ever heard, and there was no opportunity to have a normal conversation about it. (Ring that irony bell, sisters!) I guess in all three of these instances, my desire to have the argument is born of wanting these people to see how wrong they are, because in these cases I believe they are. Except for the introversion thing with Sherlock, the other two arguments are big topics, life-soaked topics that I think about all the time, topics that I have wrestled with, in the mud and blood, and I don’t feel confused about them. There aren’t many things I could say that about; I’m pretty uncertain about most things, but not these.

(Oh, and I still argue in my mind with my first husband Jerry, who insisted that his feet smelled like lilacs. [THEY DID NOT.] He has a very dry, dry sense of humor, my favorite thing about him, and for years and years I asked him, “You’re joking, right?” and he would hold a straight face and simply insist on the lilacs thing. It makes me laugh.)

You Can’t Escape from What You Are

Vincent Cassel // “You can’t escape from what you are.”
That image came up in my Instagram feed (the account is Nitch, and it’s reliably a source of something to pause and think about) and indeed, the quote accompanying it made me stop and think. It’s the verb he chose — ‘escape’ — that’s really the point, as if (my first thought) who you are is something bad. (I’ll come back to that.) I had a kind of instinctive reaction, a defense of self, and the size of my reaction also made me pause. WHOA, what’s that about. Why you gotta be so mad, Queenie?

So I sat with that for a while. You can’t escape from WHAT you are. Hmm. Not who you are — maybe who is a more socially constructed idea, the roles and parts we play — but what you are, and maybe that’s your essence, your unlanguaged center, the you that perhaps you think is bad, or too much, or too inelegant, or too chaotic, or too wild, or too [fill in your own blank]. Maybe that’s what we try to escape from. And in fact, that’s one thing culture does to/for us. We are tamed. We learn to wait (but we don’t want to wait!). We learn to take turns and share (but that’s mine!). We learn to wait for food. We learn to lie down even though we want to run and jump. We learn the discipline of focus and studying. And we learn the shared cultural knowledge, the stories we agree to believe in, the roles that are acceptable for us as a function of the culturally relevant variables. We learn what’s expected of us. We learn what’s in our realm of possibles. All of that learning is intended, among other things, to shape the what of us. Some of it is agreeable, some of it isn’t, and some we finally decide to reject. But we have been civilized in the process, and our wildness might get the corners knocked off. A bit. (But not permanently, I believe.)

What was I, in the beginning? I was a quiet girl, a serious girl, a girl who only wanted to read. I was an awkward girl, inelegant, clumsy. I was not a girl who made noise, who was rambunctious, who wanted to push envelopes. I did not like to play, and in fact couldn’t figure out how to do that. In part my environment played a role in this, but honestly I also think it’s what I am. Then and now I am a quiet person, a serious person, a person who loves to read, who does not make noise, who isn’t rambunctious, who doesn’t know how to play. As a young girl of 5 or 6 I wanted to be a paleontologist. The disciplines varied, but always I wanted to be a scientist, and always asked for (but never got) a microscope for Christmas. During a brief period of reading the Cherry Ames, Student Nurse books when I was 8, I wanted to be a nurse, but that was short-lived. Too much poop. I always wanted a future in a lab, surrounded by the stuff of science. I never drew or colored or painted; it was science for me as long as I can remember. Books. Lab equipment. Serious conversations. Academia. Not motherhood, ever, but more as a conscious choice borne of my quivering fear of not being able to avoid being like my own parents.

I tried so hard to escape what I was, and did a pretty good job of it. I was a very unpopular girl, in part because I was the smart girl (still not an easy place for young girls) — so I tried to be dumb. I tried so hard to fail, I remember consciously trying to fail in 3rd and 4th grades, thinking then maybe people would like me. I tried to escape my seriousness by making fun of myself and calling myself names, mocking myself, belittling the very things I valued, like my openness to the world. I tried to escape my seriousness by hiding it away because I didn’t feel strong enough to talk back to those who told me not to be so serious all the time. To take a joke. I played the clown, I played the dumb girl, I played the dumb woman. (Sort of.)

And the ‘sort of’ really matters, because it’s not a black and white story. At 36 I started college, and knew that I wanted to go all the way through to a PhD . . . which I did. And never made a single B, the whole time. Not one, and while raising three children. But I didn’t pursue neuroscience, which is what I really wanted (my first wish), because I didn’t think I was smart enough. And I didn’t pursue philosophy, which is also what I really wanted (my second wish), because it seemed impractical, and I had a family. And so I pursued psychology, which felt doable (surely I’d be smart enough) and practical (ha!!!). Still, though, I didn’t allow myself to be serious, and because my performance was so good (I just worked hard!) I blew myself off, minimized myself (I just worked hard!).

What am I, really? What am I, still? What remains of the me I was, what is the me that has developed? I’m winking at my crone years now, my wild woman in the wood years, my white-haired years, and it’s time. If not now, when? Time to quit trying to escape from what I am. My youngest grandchild, my beautiful granddaughter Lucy, turns 1 TODAY. I’ve waited long enough.

touched, moved, heart-opened

I have this feeling so easily — whether it’s brought about because of beauty, or awe, or pain, it’s always the same. It’s a feeling of tenderness towards all of us (except for the asshole Republicans who just want to destroy everything and loot the world), because here we are, trying so hard. Here we are, losing everything in floods. Here we are, on our knees in a long, dark night. Here we are, fighting for our precious lives against our own murderous cells. Here we are, seeing each other (I see you there, dear Mudd), reaching out a hand. Here we are, crawling on our bellies with no guarantee that there is light to be found. Here we are, bringing babies into the world with our quavering hope. Here we are, feeling joy and despair and need and want and wistfulness. Here we are, wondering about dinner, or worrying about the basement, or missing our children. Here we are, fighting our tiny little personal battles that can loom so large — addiction maybe, or financial need, or suicidal depression — feeling so all alone on this earth. Here we are, wondering how we got here, at our age, is this all there is? This is not how we thought it would be. Here we are, wherever we are, and it’s almost always a surprise. Here we are, away from home: maybe it’s a choice, a vacation, a long-anticipated trip, or maybe it’s a fleeing, maybe an abandonment of what’s dear with no idea of what tomorrow will be.

Here we are, making our plans, for vacation or new schools for our babies or quilts/bread and cookies/sweaters/comics/books/paintings/music. Here we are, expecting that next week we’ll paint the upstairs, or go on a trip, or have an ordinary week at work. Here we are, worrying how we’ll make it to the end of the month without nearly enough money. Here we are, hoping that nothing bad happens like a broken car or sick child. Here we are, praying that the rains will stop, that war won’t find us, that missiles don’t fly. Here we are, claiming our small happinesses — lovely sunsets, time in the vast West in awe of that scale, dinner with friends, an hour on the yoga mat, celebrations of moments that only matter to us — and going ahead and feeling all that joy.

Here we are, sitting alone and feeling alone, or sitting in a crowd and feeling alone, or sitting with a partner and feeling alone. Here we are, feeling all the abundance in our own silence and solitude, or feeling all the abundance with a crowd of friends, or feeling all the abundance of our loving partner. Maybe feeling loneliness and abundance all at once, so confusing.

Here we are on the turning earth — summer into fall or winter into spring, dramatic shifts, and we’re tired of the old and anticipating the new. It does this every year, and every year it feels surprising.

Here we are, with absolutely no idea what’s coming. Here we were on a perfectly glorious September morning in NYC in 2001, clear blue skies and our big plans and no way to begin to imagine the way the world would change on the 11th. Here we are, ever the optimists, imagining more endless clear blue skies. Here we are, flood waters taking away everything and us rising to the occasion to help each other in ways large and small, visible and never-known. Here we are, filled with all our little human joys and pains, dramas and melodramas and quiet times, and we are just trying so hard. Most of us are just trying so hard, and I find such a crushing nobility in that. The crushing part is the moving part of it, the way we’ve all been brought to our knees at least once but here we are again, standing up and holding out our hands to each other. Here we are, leaving little notes for each other, sending little helpful bits of information to each other, saying I see you / That happened to me too / Here’s what I tried / It will get better.

I’m sitting in my leather chair, surrounded by large glass doors and windows. To my right I see, through the large double glass doors, my beautiful deck littered with beech nuts and orange leaves, and a forest blocking my view of the mountain behind, with little bits of blue sky visible between the leaves. Over my left shoulder, I see a big blue sky with wispy clouds, and another mountain behind, a little more visible between the trees because the leaves are thinning out. To my wider left, I see nothing but trees — a huge beech tree trunk up close, and all the trees of the forest preserve just beyond. Straight ahead, I see my living room, my woodburning stove, my wonderful kitchen, and through that window I see the later afternoon light, as I write this post. In the air I hear Arvo Part’s gorgeous work, Spiegel im spiegel, and my heart creaks and cracks. Outside the music I hear birds and insects, and a little chipmunk dashes past me, capturing my attention. I feel the space in my heart that’s set aside for Oliver and Lucy, for Ilan, and for my daughters and their husbands, the part that’s shattered that holds my son, the part that holds space for my husband and the new ground we’ve found with each other. My feet are cold, my nose is cold, I’m not sure what I’m going to make for dinner but it doesn’t matter.

I love you. I’m so so grateful for your presence on this earth, at the same time I’m here. I’m so grateful for the way you share yourself with me, however that might be — big or small, in person or electronically, loud or soft, frequent or rare. You are here, I am here, and I’m so very grateful for it all, and for you.