on civil discourse

How do we do this thing? We have been this far apart from each other twice, in our country’s history:

  • The Civil War, during which one half of us thought owning human beings was just fine, and the other half disagreed.
  • The period around the Vietnam War, the 1960s and 1970s, when our country was bald-faced lying to us and happily sacrificing thousands of our boys for a fight that wasn’t ours at ALL, and when black people and gay people and women were simply trying to be treated like actual human beings and not substandard crap to be swept aside by mainstream white man America.

Here we are again. Let me immediately confess and agree that I am as unyielding as any Republican, and I have no idea at all how we can ever move forward. I look back at our history and I see/guess that we have moved forward from those two terrible periods, but at the same time I have to wonder that we keep finding ourselves in this same bi-polarized place, so did we really move forward? Or did we just tire of the fight, and agree to shut the fuck up for a while?

I read arguments noting that we have to be able to come to the table, talk to each other, but this is always what stops me. It’s not like we’re talking about arcane issues like how exactly to approach the debt ceiling. I am unwilling to “negotiate” on such issues as these:

  • Black people and all people of color have the same human rights as white people, and the country has been set up quite exactly to ensure the privilege of the white people.
  • Women, as “human beings,” have the right to decide what happens to themselves.
  • All of us should pay our share, including the rich people and businesses.
  • Gun control needs to happen immediately, as it has in all civilized countries.
  • One critical function of the federal government is to provide a safety net for the less-strong among us. The federal government does not exist solely to fund the military and give everything else to the rich people.
  • All of us, even the impoverished, should have access to healthcare — which means affordable healthcare. We should be able to make the same decisions for our lives regardless of our wealth status, and we should not be having to organize gofundme accounts to help save our lives. That is so outrageous. At this very moment, I know two people fighting cancer who are begging for help with gofundme accounts. If that doesn’t give you pause, get the fucking hell away from me immediately.
  • Religion has no place in government and laws. We are not a theocracy.

[I HATE FUCKING REPUBLICANS SORRY I JUST HAD TO SCREAM THAT FOR A SECOND.] [AND YES, THAT MEANS YOU IF YOU ARE ONE.] [NOT SORRY.]

If we were able to meet on some crazy idea of common ground, accepting the same general principles that characterize the most basic humanity, then it would be a debate about how best to accomplish these goals. But it isn’t. I don’t want to unnecessarily play the Hitler card, but I’ll do that here. How could we sit down and say:

“OK, so you think it’s OK to eliminate a whole people systematically and I don’t, so let’s find a way forward.”

FUCK THAT. Fuck the hell out of that, and I mean that with an almost violent passion. I no longer have the time or energy to give to silent ‘friends’ who won’t take even the silliest of public stands….Facebook. If, at this point, I don’t know where you stand, I am not your friend. Being vaguely “against hate” while watching Fox News does not cut it, at all. I know who you are. You have shown me exactly who you are. I no longer have the time or energy to give to ‘friends’ who see the world so profoundly differently. To friends who were temporarily broke while putting their husbands through med school and then say they understand and talk about people “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” Perhaps it’s terrible of me. I leave a lot of space for that to be true. But this is me, and I just can’t do it anymore. So let me say all this as plainly as I can. And yes, this refers to you.

If you’re silent, you are not my friend. If I don’t know where you stand, you are not my friend. You are simply someone I ‘know.’

Friend has a different meaning to me now. If you hold a position that could get someone I love killed, I cannot be your friend. If you think women don’t have a right to self-determination, I cannot be your friend. (Believe whatever you want for yourself, I would never argue with you as long as you believe all women have that same right as you do, even if you disagree with what they choose and believe. I would never hold that your personal beliefs are wrong, as they apply to you. I would defend your right to believe them.) If you think there isn’t a systemic anti-POC stance, I cannot be your friend, because I have no sense of your intelligence. If you think your religion should determine my rights, I cannot be your friend. (If your beliefs apply only to you, I would never argue with you, and I would defend your right to your own beliefs for yourself.) If you think non-violent protestors have no right to protest, I cannot be your friend. If you think there should be no gun control laws, I cannot be your friend. If you are so silent that I have no idea what you believe, I cannot be your friend, even if occasionally you send me — privately — a note that contradicts your public claims, and claims you have made to my face. You are a threat to my life, and to the lives of those I love.

I’m drawing a line. It may make me small, it may make me no-better-than-them, but I have to live with myself. These are bleak times. It’s us against them, and my heart and soul are against them. I will defend Lucy’s humanity as a some-day woman with my very life. I will defend my grandchildren’s futures with my life. I will defend my gay son’s rights with my life. I mean that literally, and I would prefer to live to be a dusty old woman, a bag of brittle old bones, but their futures matter more to me than my own, at this point, so if you’re on the other side, you are against me. Also, I do not give even one shit if you used to protest for the good side, if you’ve since moved to the other side. Quit bragging. You are a hideous hypocrite. And yes. I mean you.

And I am against you. You are not on my side, and I will fight to my last breath to oppose you. Nothing has ever mattered more to me. I’m old[er] and wise[r] and know what matters to me, and I just do not have a second to waste.

And yes. I am furious.

Notice! Notice!

In graduate school, I studied the immune system for a couple of semesters because the work being done in our lab had been shown to have an effect on it. Writing about a traumatic experience gives your immune system a boost in all kinds of ways, lots of evidence about it even though there is no explanation for why, since we can’t randomly assign people to have a traumatic experience — so no causality in an explanation, but it’s a reliable relationship, and a significant one.

I remember my surprise at learning the “immune system” isn’t really a “system.” Not like the circulatory system — it’s more this loose amalgamation of processes and organs that kind of hang around together, but not like the heart/lung/arterial-venous collection. And I also remember my surprise when I learned that the way I’d been thinking about it had been kind of bassackwards. Like everyone else, I had the experience of getting sick after a prolonged period of stress, and my take on it had been that my immune system crashed, had failed, had let me down. But actually it had been brilliant! It had been soldiering on throughout the stress, and when finally the stress ended, and it had done its job to keep me going when I needed it most, like me it could collapse a bit. I felt kind of bad for having dissed it all those years. 🙂

Do you have the same experience I have, of hearing yourself say something and suddenly you know the absolute truth of it — and you didn’t know you knew it until you heard yourself say it? I’m sure you do. This happens all the time when I’m writing, but in recording my little daily creekside chats, I’ve surprised myself by those kinds of tiny but not-tiny truths that slip out, and I hadn’t known that I knew such a true thing. A week ago, more or less, in preparing to talk about two war documentaries I’d watched (WWII and Vietnam), I opened by saying hello to all of us, so full of life. I guess that came from a moment of gratitude that we are alive, when so many have died in the awfulness of war, but that’s not what I meant, and I knew it in the moment I said it. I meant something much more electric than that, and it was a similar kind of misunderstanding to the one I had about the immune system. I got this bassackwards, too.

At the moment, there are several people I care about a WHOLE LOT who are dealing with life-edge situations of illness and real grinding hardship. I haven’t yet been on the illness life-edge, but I’ve had so many experiences where my life might not have continued, whether because of a gun to my head, literally by my father’s or my own hand, or by the extreme difficulty of a life situation, and in those times I have felt not very much alive. I’ve felt like the life inside me was nearly gone.

But I have had it all wrong.  Bassackwards. In those dread and dire moments, my life was pounding in me. Friends who are being poisoned by chemotherapy to save their lives, friends who are grappling with the remnants of a brain scavenged by stroke, friends who are battling organs that have given up the ghost — life is screaming in them, too. Friends whose lives are in a crisis that feels impossible and overwhelming, life is screaming in them. In fact, life, the force of life, is screaming so loud it’s almost deafening. It’s a force, an electric charge, a phenomenon. It’s in us, pulsing blue, when we’re doing boring tasks like grocery shopping and putting away clean dishes. It’s in us, pulsing blue, when we are feeling despair, or loneliness, or emptiness. It’s easily recognizable in us, pulsing blue, when we are enjoying our lives, but what a mistake it is not to recognize the aliveness that’s always there. On July 29, 2013, I had a strange dream that was like a slideshow, and each slide was a very loud color. One tiny part was that the two scars on my arm from an earlier surgery were glowing with a brilliant blue LED light, and the blue light was all inside me, leaking out through my pores. For some reason I don’t know, this has always been blue, to me. What color is it for you?

Right there — in those old scars where the fixator had been screwed into my bones, blue light was shining out.

This is such a little gift some deep part of myself gave me. Ever since I said that, an unprepared sentence that emerged from my mouth, I have felt differently, thought differently, as I move around in my quiet little life. I walk to the creek, filled with electric blue life. I sit in my chair reading a manuscript, literally vibrating with blue life. I lock up the house at night to head upstairs in the silence, electric blue life shimmering all around me for any with eyes to see. Like me, for instance.

If it’s hard for you, if you’re fighting for your life, life is fighting for you too. None of us are going to win, ultimately, but it’s the only fight that matters, and we fight it every single day — some days it feels like a fight, some days it feels like a mountaintop joy, but it’s always there. Always. It’s the biggest gift, this awareness, and of course I can’t say anything with absolute certainty in this regard, as a person who has 8-year cycles of suicidality, but I hope this truth from deep inside me helps see me through. Hello you, so full of life. I see you there. I see that force of the universe animating you, vibrating you, affecting everything around you. How dearly I love you.

the Just World Hypothesis

I’m here to offer yet another plug for aging. Getting older can be so marvelous, because you start to see with clarity. (Not everyone; I’ve known some bitter, small, mean old people who became concentrated nuggets of ignorance.) But if you’re lucky — or whatever, however this works — you understand more and more. And the funniest thing is that your understanding gets simpler and simpler:

 

  • It’s all one thing.
  • You are who you are.
  • Life happens to everyone, and we all die.

I think it all boils down to that. Just because it’s so simple, however, doesn’t mean it’s simple to talk about. And just because it’s so simple, that doesn’t mean you can just tell other people, younger people, what you have learned and suddenly they have the same complexity of understanding. For me, anyway, it has taken living my years to be able finally to see this.

Simple complexity, impossible to say clearly, but I’ll try, and I’ll start with a social psych principle called the Just World Hypothesis. It’s a more elaborated idea than this thumbnail, but basically it’s a deep belief that we get what we deserve. That if we’re good, good things will come to us. Bad people get what they deserve. Etc. It unfolds into a whole ethical landscape of implications, but at the center that’s what it is. Like me, I’m sure you’ve frequently heard people wail, “Why me???” And then they provide the list of explanations for why X shouldn’t have happened to them. If it’s a health thing, the list includes their health-related behaviors. If it’s an accident, the list includes the ways they are always so careful. If it’s about their child, the list includes the ways their child was innocent and they were watchful parents.

Undoubtedly because of my childhood, the fact that I was born to a couple who wanted to destroy everyone and everything, I was disabused of the belief in the just world. And one freezing night, in an alley on the wrong side of town in Wichita Falls, I thought through it very carefully and solidified my understanding: shit just happens. Life happens to everyone. In a larger way, it’s all random.

And it’s all one thing: Life happens to everyone. Why would we ever think, even for a second, that only “good” things will happen to us? (And yet we do: Shelley Taylor’s work showed that people don’t believe things like house fires, bad car wrecks, serious illness, etc., will happen to them in their futures; that we all believe we’re above average (leading another psychologist to dub this ‘the Lake Wobegone effect,’ when the law of averages alone proves that we cannot ALL be above average.)) We must believe that because of some deep, unexamined reliance on this just world hypothesis.

And so once again I have to leave space for the possibility that I was luckier than most people to have the childhood I had. That’s not Monday morning quarterbacking, or brave, chin-quivering denial, it’s an understanding of the way it’s all one thing. My life is a whole, the experiences I’ve had all along the way are so woven into the cloth of who I am that it’s impossible to pull out a warp thread, a weft thread. It’s impossible to sit here, in my chair at Heaventree, and even begin to entertain some fantasy of what it would’ve been like to have had a loving mother, a father who didn’t try to kill me. A safe home. Security. It’s impossible to do that, the entire cloth of me disintegrates and there could be no “me” sitting here to ponder that question.

Whenever I hear someone ask, “Why me?” my only thought is, “Why not you?” Of course I never ever say that, because at that moment the person asking the question needs compassion and help, and this fact of “why not you” is completely irrelevant. There may come a time in their process when it makes sense to gently talk about it, if it helps them realize that they aren’t being punished, or whatever they are thinking, but never at that first wailing.

But really. Why not you? Why not me? Life is just happening, and often we are just in the wrong place. A knot forms in an umbilical cord. A car veers into the oncoming lane. Cells take a left turn and start dividing wildly. Myelin disappears, plaques form, bones honeycomb. Unexamined parts of ourselves commit an act of sabotage or treason and we won’t recognize it for years. And as impossible as it is to grasp in the thick of it, it’s all of a piece and the landscape of your life, and yourself, are bigger and more vast and complex, and this is one warp or weft thread in your tapestry. When I was a child, of course I had no perspective to understand this, and I mean that literally: those experiences did not have the context of life that followed them, they were my endpoints at that time, and they represented the bulk of my life. Assuming we survive the terrible thing that happens, and have the good luck of living to put it in perspective, there are good things to be drawn from it; we are changed by it, and to some degree it’s up to us how we are changed by it (emotionally and psychologically, at least) (and I mean to some degree it’s up to us).

When my life fell apart at the end of 2012, I was coincidentally reading a book about trauma survivors (one of my favorite topics) called When You’re Falling, DiveI really recommend the book to everyone, because if you are a magical unicorn and nothing bad ever happens to you, then at least you are going to know all the rest of us to whom bad things will happen because we are not magical unicorns — so you can learn a few things to be present with us. I highlighted dozens of passages in the book, but I share these two with this post, and encourage you to click that link and get the book:

“Survival doesn’t really mean anything without acceptance,” John explains. “That’s the paradoxical part. You have to take the thing that’s wrong and own it. Make it into something that has meaning for you. If you try to hide or negate it, it will just eat you up,” he says. “If you’re hoping for things to be other than they are—constantly wondering how or why something happened, or how to fix it—you’re lost. You’ll completely miss out on the graceful time you have.

“When people are in need, you must be present. When people suffer, you must let them know you’re suffering with them.” “The good side of bad acts?” I say. “I would not say that from horror comes goodness. That would be giving horror too much credit. But goodness prevails in spite of horror.

I’m not in the midst of trials in my own life, at the moment, so I acknowledge that it can feel like “easy for her to say.” But if you’ve known me long, you know that I say this even when trials do come my way, and this is part of the clarity of understanding I’ve gained as I’ve gotten older. It’s all one thing — the “good” and the “bad,” who we are, how we live, and that we are who we are with that entire context in place. We came into the world exactly who we are and we live the life we live and it’s all one thing.

It’s fascinating to me how utterly complex simplicity is, but that it can still be simple. Something to ponder on a beautiful Friday, the first day of autumn. xoxoxoxo

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

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.)

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.

secular prayer

My mother went through a Christian fundamentalist religious phase — years of it, many different flavors, and during a prolonged period when she was doing the most hideous, unspeakable things, and knowingly allowing even worse things to be done inside her house. One phase was particularly weird to me; the gist of her preacher’s message was that God wants His people to be wealthy so non-believers would want to follow. Because who would look at poor, down-in-the-mouth Christians and think Gimme some of that! There was a very specific verbal construction she and her fellow church members would say: “I’m believing on the Lord for a new XYZ.” (on the Lord?) So, for example, “I’m believing on the Lord for a new Cadillac.” “I’m believing on the Lord for a new refrigerator.” “I’m believing on the Lord for a bigger house.” “I’m believing on the Lord for those designer shoes.” It was always stuff they were “believing on the Lord” for, never humility, or forgiveness, or an open heart. They seemed to understand God as the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. (And I don’t recall new Cadillacs, or refrigerators, or new houses, or designer shoes magically or unmagically appearing, except perhaps for the preacher.)

Prayer always felt deeply urgent to me as a little kid. I once lost a birthstone ring Mother had given me for Christmas and I was so completely terrified about what she would do to me when she realized I’d lost it. And as an indicator of the specific kind of gaslighting Mother did to us (among other things, she told us she knew everything we were ever thinking or doing, even when we weren’t in her presence), I believed that God knew exactly where my birthstone ring was and was laughing at me, and wouldn’t let me know where it was because I deserved what was coming to me. But how urgently I prayed, how desperately I prayed. Please God, please let me know where it is. It’s going to be so terrible, please, just please let me know where it is. I promise I’ll quit being an evil person. Just this one time, please just this once please show me where the ring is. (I was 8.) OR Please God, please let the Longhorns win so Daddy won’t hurt us. Etc.

My prayers were always of that desperate kind, when I was young, up to the winter night in a freezing alley when I was 15 and completely lost my faith and replaced it with a belief that everything in the whole universe happened in a random way, and there was no Other out there. Because if there was a God who knew what was happening to me, either (a) he could help but instead he just let it happen, in which case screw that, or (b) he knew but couldn’t do anything, in which case what use? or (c) he had no idea what was happening to me, in which case what use? I found so much more comfort in random, because random shit can just happen to everyone. And it does.

But still I pray, constantly, and it always takes this form, now: “Please let the next box hold my third music stand!” “Please let that be the last fork in the dishwater!” “Please let it be chilly tonight!” Sometimes it’s more like “Please please please please please let the next box hold my third music stand!”

I laugh at myself every single time. Oh silly, sweet little queen.

One of Anne Lamott’s thinnest books was Help, Thanks, Wow, which I read at the end of November, 2012, when I left New York and returned to Austin. The point of that book was that she has only three prayers, really (she’s very religious, but in the good way, with good politics): Help! Gosh, thank you. And wow, that’s amazing. I resonated to the book because my prayers are mostly of the form thank you, and WOW. Wow. The trees. Wow. Clouds. Wow. My grandchildren, my daughters. Thank you, my grandchildren, my daughters. Thank you, trees and clouds. Wow. Thank you. I don’t turn to prayer for help except in this silly way (please please please, let the next box hold my third music stand!), because I don’t really think the world works like that. It’s easy enough to feel gratitude and awe, and to allow that to take a spiritual form — but while I might like to think there is some Force Out There that will actually help a woman out now and then, I just don’t have that framework.

But really, pleasepleasepleaseplease let my third music stand be in the next box. Come on. I’d really appreciate it. 🙂

Happy Sunday, y’all. xoxoxo