seeking the mechanism

Since November 9, 2016, all my creative efforts have failed. All my cooking has flopped. My baking, just awful — even things I’ve been making for decades and can make in my sleep. Knitting? Fail, fail, fail, frog frog frog. My writing has been clenched and just kind of awful, though I have had a couple of things that worked, inspired by deep veins of emotion about my family, in one way or another.

Why is this? Why has the election of this monster (and the assumption of complete power by the evilest group of politicians that have ever skulked in the halls of power in our country’s history) had this particular effect on me? I wonder about it all the time, because cooking and baking and knitting and writing are such common activities for me, things I do for comfort, for pleasure, for myself and others, and for a creative outlet. But even uncreative things are failing too, like housecleaning. I bang into things, drop things, break things, knock them over. Putting the dust mop away, I realize there’s a wide swath of dust on the tile in the small hallway, how could I even have missed that, anyway? Like, how would it even be possible, given the width of the Swiffer and the narrowness of the hallway?

I’m less interested in suggestions to fix the problem (except for complete overthrow of our government and restoration to sanity), because I feel like I know the things to try, and have been trying them: I slow down, take a deep breath, create a setting that’s conducive to my enjoyment of the task, be present, note each step, take my time, etc., and still it’s all failing. So, OK. I don’t assume this is some kind of brain damage that’s happened inside me, I assume it will pass somehow. But I am interested in the mechanism, in finding some kind of explanation for it.

I’m sure it will notch right into a larger question that’s also confusing me: why am I this devastated? My own very specific life is not affected, if by “my own life” I draw the circle tightly around my personal physical boundary and don’t include “my care for vulnerable people.” Setting aside my real and surely justifiable fears that the Monster-in-Chief will get the world killed in a nuclear holocaust, this too shall pass, and we’ll get him and all his cronies out of office and if we have learned nothing else, we’ve learned that rules and norms don’t matter one bit and that one person can just sit in the chair and on day 1 sign a bunch of papers to completely change everything. So, OK. We’ll set it right, and in the interim it’s just going to be hard going. Why am I this completely devastated, four months and three days later? And of course it’s not just me, we’re all still shellshocked, pulled inward, trying to figure out how to take the next step. We’re mobilizing, fighting, having small victories and planning big ones. That feels good, it allows for the idea of the possibility of perhaps a spark of hope. (Note the distance to hope.)

But why? There are parts I get; I learned that there are enough people in this country to have fallen for his monstrousness and cast their votes for him, and that shocked me. They walk among us too. I knew they were here, I guess I just didn’t realize how many there were. So is it simply that? I don’t live in the country I thought I did? They aren’t just the fringe lunatics? That’s destabilizing I guess. But it doesn’t feel like the answer.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been running sweeps all around the country, snapping up hardworking people, splitting up families — kids come home from school and their parents are just gone. That’s devastating to know about, it goes against everything human and humane and that I care about. Just typing those two sentences made my breath get stuck, brought hot tears into my eyes, and gave me a kind of panic. But that response feels like a symptom not the cause, and it’s the cause of the enormity of my despair that I’m struggling to understand.

Then I look around the world and see this virus of hate spreading from one formerly tolerant country to another. There was a terrible-wonderful passage in a book I recently read, Ill Will by Dan Chaon. One character in the book, Russell, is an agent of destruction, and the scenes that describe the abuse he had suffered as a child were almost impossible for me to read, even though they were presented in a peripheral vision kind of way, hinting and just letting the taint seep into you through your eyes. When he’s in prison later in life, a counselor says to him: “When you’ve been abused in the way you were, you have a virus. And the virus will demand that you pass it on to someone else. You don’t even have that much of a choice.” Russell thinks, The idea that I passed on a virus, and the virus would turn around and it was my own doom? That was so fucking funny. That was so sad and so funny. [Do read Ill Will, it’s powerful. Here is my GoodReads review.] But YES, a virus. It feels exactly like the world is being infected with a murderous, deadly virus, and I hope it’s not fatal. Maybe that’s why I feel sick.

You don’t have the answer either, I don’t think anyone does. Mark Halperin (senior political analyst for MSNBC and Bloomberg Television and contributor and former co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics) said the election has “convulsed the country” more than any event since World War II, including the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I agree with him. I guess we’ll all grapple with this until we get it figured out, and that is likely to take a long time because every single day the administration hurls more horrors at us. Every. Single. Day. It’s so disorienting.

I want my pleasures back. I want to knit beautiful things again and not have to just rip everything out.

I want to bake sumptuous cinnamon rolls for people. I want to make really delicious vegetarian food for my dinners again. I want to make.

Even though I’m not asking for answers, I am wondering: is this happening to you too? Is it still happening to you?

self-ease

Summer 1980, age 21 — I was certain, then, that no one could be more monstrous than I was. I look at myself then, so fresh and young and pretty, and can’t imagine how I saw what I saw. I still can remember what I saw, and it makes me shudder.

The really terrible thing about being seen and described as a monster by your mother is the way that gets internalized, right from the start, before you even have words of your own. It’s like a slug of radiation, slow-leak-poisoning you for decades. She did her thing, and I finished the job for her long after I left her and never saw her again. I believed I was the monster she saw. I believed I was a fat cow, as she called me. Her words transformed into the very lenses in my eyes. The clinical term for it is body dysmorphia, but that seems so bloodless. It’s confusing to other people who look at you and see a perfectly ordinary human being. Maybe they see beauty, maybe they see plainness, but they just can’t see what you see yourself. They have normal lenses. 

The changes that come with aging are twofold. First, if you’re lucky I suppose, you simply become more comfortable in your own skin, which at that point is softer and sagging. And second, also if you’re lucky, you dig out those old lenses, delete and replace those old stories, and find a new voice in your head that wishes you well.

Here I am with Nancy, my boon companion. Isn’t she lovely?

Selfies are fascinating to me. Young people seem to take them to practice different ways of self-presentation, to be flirty, to show their youth. Selfies can show you in a special place — here I am, on Machu Picchu! At the Parthenon! In a little boat in the middle of the Mekong River Delta! Here I am with my daughter, my granddaughter, one of my grandsons, my friend.

And sometimes I think people take them for the same reason I do, which is to try to see themselves clearly. To snap a picture and then gaze at it, ah, that’s me. That is my nose, that is my smile. Taking selfies has helped me learn how to see myself. I look closely at all of them, the awkward ones, the ugly ones, the mid-grimace ones, the lovely ones, looking for myself. It’s a digital effort to build my own database of myself. I have a folder on my laptop full of them, and I keep trying to remember to delete them all in case I die unexpectedly and my kids find them and think I was surely narcissistically self-centered. For some reason it’s easier to see a photograph than to see in the mirror, where I move and live and my face morphs. I too easily get distracted by my thoughts in a way that I don’t, with a picture.

When I started sharing them a couple of years ago, people’s comments and responses were extremely difficult to take. They made me uncomfortable, and I wondered if people thought I was fishing for compliments. If they had been inside my head they would have known the truth of my humiliation, and the courage it took to share them. I’d thank them, and for a very long time I thought they were just lying out of kindness. And then, about a year later, I started to think it wasn’t that they were lying, but that their vision of me had everything to do with them and their generous hearts, and little to do with me. So I thanked them for seeing me with such grace and love. 

January 1, 2017, in my 58 years of glory

When I share one now, and someone leaves a generous compliment, my gratitude is very different. I see a bit of what they see. And best of all, I can’t see what my mother saw, no matter how hard I try. I see an aging woman with a kind face (usually), with a nice smile and a generally attractive appearance. I usually like my hair (especially that glorious white streak that frames my face, how I love that!). I’ve come to like my nose well enough. I see echoes of my father and his mother, both of whom I was always told I resembled. Actually, I was told I looked JUST like them, and in fact I have their hands exactly, although my hands have never been violent.

OK. That’s me. I see.

I guess this post is just an alternative way for you to think about seeing people’s selfies — and especially if it’s a somewhat older woman sharing them. Maybe it’s not at all about showing off, or hoping for compliments, or about narcissism. Maybe she is just trying to see. Be kind. Help her.

the quotidian grist

the icon for the app

I’m participating in a scientific experiment about happiness — you can, too, by downloading the app for your phone (click that link). A set number of times throughout the day you get a little ping and respond to a number of questions — where are you, what are you doing, are you alone, are you productive, have you exercised in the last 24 hours, have you spent money, etc — quick and simple. Sometimes it’s frustrating, because I want to provide context (I’m very unhappy because of politics!), but at the same time given my own research in graduate school, I know that context isn’t as important to a great many questions as we think it is. Track Your Happiness was created as part of Matt Killingsworth’s doctoral research at Harvard University, and the project was approved by the Harvard University Committee for the Use of Human Subjects.

Of course, and especially when I’m in Austin, my days are extremely small, quiet, and routine. I’m mostly at home, with brief forays to see my daughter and grandkids, or to an occasional lunch or happy hour with a friend, or to a book club meeting. A daily walk. A daily yoga class. Meal preparation. Make the bed, pull back the bed. Clean the kitchen. Get the mail. Work, if I have work. It’s a very tiny little life in Austin, quiet and inward, and for the most part I love it. But it’s also true that participating in this study has made me even more keenly aware of this because it asks me specifically to move this slide before I say anything else:

I’m glad it’s not a 5- or 7-point scale, but when I’m walking through the house, or knitting, or drinking a cup of coffee, or making a shopping list, HOW DO I FEEL at that moment? Ordinarily, before this nightmarish election, my base state was happy; since the election my base state has not been happy at all, it has ranged from full-on despair to fear to panic, and the app doesn’t let me indicate that at all. Still, when I make that rating I try to think about what I’m doing in that moment and how it makes me feel. It has had the effect of focusing me in the present a little more, which has been good. Because while my background state might be panic, when I’m holding Lucy (and getting puked on, because those are synonymous), I’m very happy. When I watching Oliver be Oliver, I’m very happy. When I’m taking my walk, or doing yoga, I’m content and I feel good.

That’s it, that’s really what makes happiness. Making a really good cup of coffee. Knitting a pair of fuchsia socks out of the softest wool, and seeing the fabric appear before your eyes. Reading a really good book. Talking to someone you love. Being called on when someone is in need, and being able to be there — oh, that’s just the best joy, note to self to remember that when I am in need. Spending a day that comprised dozens of those unremarkable moments. The remarkable times speak for themselves, carry their own emphasis, and don’t need any help being noticed. When I’m in New York City and going to MoMA, or marching in a protest, or walking in Riverside Park, or any of the zillions of remarkable things there are to do, I note them and appreciate them and they’re the tell-worthy experiences of my life: “Guess what I did today! It was such fun!”

Even in this awful time, when we are witnessing the destruction of our country by a political party that is willing to burn everything down, knitting with soft fuschia wool is beautiful. Getting puked on by your roly-poly, happy, red-headed granddaughter is beautiful. Running errands on a sunny day and getting shit done, beautiful. Waking up in your own wonderful bed, running your feet over the soft, cool sheets, listening to the mockingbird in the backyard tree, stretching and getting up to make a pot of strong, rich coffee, that’s a whole lot of happiness right there.

Happy Saturday y’all. If you’re interested, download the app! “Track Your Happiness” for iPhone and Android, both. xoxoxo

 

excavations

What a remarkable and original mind

This morning I listened to Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview with Raoul Peck, director of the truly marvelous documentary I Am Not Your Negro I wrote about this a couple of posts ago, and continue to recommend that every person go see it. Raoul Peck is a very interesting man with his own fascinating history, and his interview gave me additional insights into James Baldwin, and also gave me another chance to hear Baldwin speak, since the interview included a bit of Gross’s interview with Baldwin in 1987. It’s astonishing to listen to someone with an original mind, it’s like breathing the freshest air (no pun intended there, really) after being in a stale, enclosed room of ordinary objects. Here’s the interview to make it easy for you to listen:

Baldwin had to leave America to learn who he was outside of the labels that were attached to him from birth, and the way he talked about that in the older interview, that he had to learn who he was, not what he was, gave me a new perspective. He was a genius at that; when he lived in Paris, and saw the photograph of Dorothy Counts walking to school, integrating the school in North Carolina, his thought was shame and anger — we should have been there with her, he thought. She should not have had to do that alone. That’s not what I think when I look at it, and in part that’s because I’m white and feel the shame of those reactions and unimaginable awe at her ability to be so composed.

She held her head so high, Dorothy Counts.

Raoul Peck said that no one thought Baldwin’s thought when they saw the picture, and that was his gift, his ability to see what others don’t see even though it’s right there, obvious when he says what had not been obvious before. He had such clarity and sight and then an extraordinary gift to convey it with eloquence and unflinching, direct power.

Peck was born in Haiti, and lived in the Congo, and then all over the world. His experiences as a kid with dictators and the cruelty of power gave him an insatiable need to fight against abuse of authority. He said he simply cannot accept it. That struck me, because whether one can or cannot accept it, authority will continue to be abused and so this sets you up to be tilting at windmills, fighting an endless battle. And it struck me because I have my own version of it, as I’ve learned lately.

My friend Nancy often says to me, “I’m glad I’m not burdened with empathy the way you are.” Not just because she happily voted for Trump, but she keeps telling me to just let things be, not to be so absorbed by the protesting and the despair I feel, I have my own work I need to be doing and I should just do that and let the world be. I keep trying to explain to her that I cannot do that. I would like to! I would. I’d like to let it be, whether because I trust that others will protest and march and fight, or whether because I just allow that the world will ebb and flow and things will go as they will and it’s beyond my personal ability to change it anyway. But I can’t. Probably because of my own experiences in childhood, I just cannot accept abuse of authority. I cannot accept basic human rights being stripped away from human beings. I just cannot. It’s not a choice, it’s not even a value, it’s much more fundamental than that. It’s not even about my empathy, which I do have in deep stores. This is who I have always been, and because the fight was never so stark, my experience of it was never so strong.

Recently a varied number of people have told me that they think I am very brave, or fierce, and it always surprises me because I think those things include some aspect of choice and I’m not at all choosing my response. It isn’t even a response, really. But I am learning more about who I am, underneath the labels and descriptions. Even underneath my own labels and descriptions, I guess. It can take a long time to see a pattern; for the longest time, it’s just a number of data points. On a nice piece of empty graph paper with that neat and axis, when you are learning geometry, it’s easy to see that two points determine a line. But in the messy noise of living a life, with labels and confusion and conflict (even/especially inside yourself), that line can take a long time to see. As awful as it is, what is happening to my country, it has snapped my understanding into sharp relief: THIS IS WHO I AM. This is always who I have been, always. From rescuing pillbugs, to being bewildered that my best friend couldn’t come to my birthday party just because she was black, to my undisciplined thrashing in response to unfairness of all kinds, it’s always been this. It’s a line, from my feet through my core to my mind, and it just is.

In the most perfect world, each person in this world would be focused the most on being exactly who they are — to seeing the world as they see it, to flowering themselves out into the world. To singing their songs, saying their poems, engineering their creations, fighting the injustices they see that others don’t — and we would all do our best to encourage each other in that. I certainly didn’t have that, and I think when I was raising my kids, I was more focused on keeping them alive and on the path toward education and making “good” choices for themselves instead of listening to them and helping them flower. I can do that with my grandchildren of course, and I think my daughters will be better at that than I was. For me, at age 58, I continue to excavate, to shine lights in the corners, and to see who I am so I can flower outwards. And I add James Baldwin to my own pantheon (which includes Mister Rogers, Hillary Clinton, and John Lewis) for models for how to be a person in this world. I have an impulse to say that I’m changing right now, it feels that way, but I think a better way to say it is that layers are falling away that have hidden me from myself — and maybe they didn’t hide me from you, maybe you saw through them.

Be you. Let me see you. I want to see exactly who you are, I really do. I am feeling cheated by the world. I feel cheated by the oppressive white culture that hides so much from me. I feel cheated by the labels and boxes we are defined by whether they fit or not. Please be you, it’s the most important thing you can do, and it’s probably true that you will have to figure out what that means, first. xoxxo

three things: mirrors, growing, and zen

FEED: When my little family and I lived in New Britain, CT almost 30 years ago, in what was clearly the ghetto part of that otherwise-rich place, I got a chance to get away for a bit. We had three tiny kids at the time, all under the age of 5, and we were planning to move to Virginia. My then-husband had already been there scouting places to rent, and he suggested that I go, that he would stay with our kids.

even after driving over that bridge hundreds of times, the view of Manhattan never fails to take my breath away

This was such a glorious thing—just me, after such terrible hardship, a solo road trip (and I adore road trips). And not only that, I would drive through New York City for the first time in my life. I left around 4am, I think, and as I came down through the scary (to me then, and in the dark) Bronx and went over the beautiful George Washington Bridge, with all of Manhattan spreading out to my left, this song came on the radio.

It was popular at the time and I really loved it, and I think it probably came on the radio a dozen times on the 6.5-hour drive, or at least it felt that way. So even now, when I hear the song I just get filled with the same soaring sense of freedom, and the lyrics poke at me too. If you wanna make the world a better place, you’ve got to look at yourself and make a change. Lots to think about there. But at the moment I am just being fed by the beat and urgency of the song, and by the memories it holds for me.

SEED: Over the last couple of very easy years of my life, I’ve often written about feeling the complacency of it, and about wanting to use that easy time to challenge myself, to get out of my comfort zone, maybe to learn something new.

Well. Then the presidential campaign came along and all that ease went away, and now the fact that he’s in office and trying to destroy everything — no more complacency here, or anywhere else. As it all started unfolding, I often felt so many levels of terrible, including some inner levels, some frustration and personal hopelessness: I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to do anything about any of this! I’m not an organizer! I don’t know anything about lobbying, I don’t know how to do any of this! I don’t know how the details of the government work! How can I / what do I / where do I / I can’t!

At one of the marches a speaker said something about this, that it doesn’t matter if we don’t know what to do, learn how to do it. It’s all learnable. Dig in, investigate, read, ask, poke around, assume roles, make things happen! I had to keep reminding myself of that because it’s not my instinct at all. Hell, after I had already made a sophisticated quilt by hand I thought I didn’t know how to quilt so I took a beginner’s quilting class. THAT IS SO ME.

It has been very frustrating, having all those feelings going on at the same time the frustration and fears about what was happening in the government were so overwhelming. It was just too much, too many sources of fear and upset, and yet there was nothing to do but keep flailing in the muck.

Yesterday I realized that I’ve learned a lot. I have really gotten somewhere with how to do these things. It’s less confusing, it’s less impossible-feeling. I have yet to organize a march, and still wouldn’t even know how to begin, but I do now know that I could figure it out. My understanding of things has become more sophisticated. I’ve paid attention somehow, in the midst of all the overwhelm.

And so this terribleness was also an opportunity, as terribleness usually is. And I guess the other thing about terribleness opportunities is that no matter how many times you go through that process, the terribleness feels so terrible that you can’t remember the opportunity part. That’s true for me, anyway. I’m by no means anywhere with it except to say that I’ve noticed the opportunity of it now. There is a very real ALIVENESS to being confused, to doing something new, to having to figure out a new language and new modes and slowly seeing that you have changed as a result.

READ: My friend George gave me a daily Zen calendar for Christmas — the only Christmas gift I received, actually — and as I pulled off all the days’ pages that passed while I was in NYC, two caught my attention:

“Nothing is more real than nothing.” ~Samuel Beckett

“Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere.” ~Bill Murray

That Beckett is so Beckett, right? It’s the kind of thing you can say to yourself and then pause to see what it means and then just get kind of lost. Is nothing real? Is there a realness to nothing? AAARGH! And I don’t know if the second quote is by that Bill Murray, but doesn’t it just give you a sense of calm?

I’m off to babysit wee Lucy this morning, so my day is off to a great start, and I hope you have something wonderful in your day too. xoxox

three things: 1/16/17

FEED: When I went to the Quiet Morning event at MoMA last week, I stood in front of this painting with an overflowing heart:

Henri Matisse
Dance (I)
Paris, Boulevard des Invalides, early 1909

For a few years in the 1990s, I felt like this painting kept me going, kept me able to imagine that life could be worth living, that life might again have happiness and joy, that one day I might actually want to dance. They were hard years, uprooting years, dream-wrenching years, and I had a print of this painting on my bedroom wall so I could see it when I felt the most despair. Looking at it today, I remember my shattered heart and how that felt, and I remember the agony I felt in the times I felt this painting made a promise that couldn’t be delivered in my life — and then the fragile times I thought perhaps it could, after all. And now, the simple happiness I can feel in the wake of those years, to have survived them and to have danced. Whether you need hope, or know joy, this painting is a gift.

Here’s the gallery note for this painting: “In March 1909, Matisse received a commission from the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin for two large decorative panels, Dance and Music (now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). This painting was made quickly as a compositional study for Dance, which was intended to hang on the landing of a staircase, approached from the lower right. This may be why the lower figure leans into the painting, increasing the sense of movement, and why the figure at left is so large, slowing it. Drawing visible beneath the paint shows that Matisse started with two smaller figures where the large figure is now.”

SEED: I want to talk about little-b bravery because I have been thinking about courage/bravery my whole life. (And in fact, one of the characters tattooed on my back is ‘courage,’ and I wrote a memoir chapter about it, which required me to think very carefully about the idea, the experience.) And then, whaddya know, Emily McDowell went and created a whole line of pins for people who exhibit bravery in their daily lives. I have bought four of them, one for me, one for my daughter, and two for women friends, because I agree with her: so many of us do brave things that will never receive the kind of attention that big noisy brave acts receive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t brave acts. And that’s why I want to set “little-b bravery” as my focus here. The big-b Bravery is inspirational, aspirational, admirational, worthy of the kind of honor it receives — like John Lewis and his life-long fight for the civil rights and honor and dignity of black people in this country. It was a Brave act, walking over the Selma Bridge and in fact he was beaten and kicked quite terribly by Alabama State Troopers, who fractured his skull. He thought he was going to die, and he just kept going. There is no doubt that was a Brave act, and it’s also true that he continues to do Brave and brave acts every day, in his quiet, dogged persistence. I’ll probably never do anything in my life that approaches his degree of courage.

But I am brave. I have been brave in my life, and in fact most days it takes courage to keep going. My friend Nancy told me that the focus of my memoirs must be “what it is to live with it,” because I survived all the nightmares of my childhood, and in a way that was the easier part. (In a way.) Then, it was so often literally a matter of life and death, and that has a way of focusing things. But living with it all, living with the fallout, living with the consequences, living with the loneliness of it, the despair of it, well, that takes a lot of courage, and there are absolutely days that I don’t have enough courage. I do not keep a gun in my house for all the reasons, but the most pointed one is that I am afraid I will use it on myself. On Christmas Day, I was so overcome that if I’d had a gun, I would’ve walked into my back yard, sat on the rocks and just pulled the trigger. One minute, start to finish. My courage was too low that day, the despair too great. I’m so glad I didn’t have a gun.

But more days than anyone can imagine, I lie in bed when I first wake up and summon courage. I summon the courage to get up anyway. To live my life that day anyway. To find some kind of happiness, some bit of joy anyway. To be willing to be open to joy even though there are ways that continues to be hard. I do it — I seek happiness, I allow happiness, I welcome joy, but it’s a brave choice, most days. This isn’t even about depression, which I know too well; it’s about what it is to live with it. To have survived. To be the survivor.

And so the pin I bought myself says “I saved my own life.” That’s brave, and I might even argue that it’s Brave. (Probably not.) One of these days, when I have earned it, I’ll buy myself the one that says “Found My Voice.” My daughter survived unimaginable grief, and that’s brave. It’s so much easier to give up the game, fold up the cloth, disappear from life in all the ways we can do that — drinking too much, abandoning ourselves to whatever is our drug of choice (carbs, for me), withdrawing from the world, dissolving into hate and anger, abandoning people, as my son has done with his family who desperately love and miss him. So much easier. It’s brave to risk, to risk again, to risk loss, to risk hurt. To risk involvement. To risk connection. If that has never required bravery on your part, then you have had a lucky life, and I don’t begrudge it! You have your own ways of being brave, because I believe we all do — and so does Emily McDowell, as she acknowledges the dozens and dozens of ways we show up to life. The ways we show up anyway. The things we had to fight for and maybe still have to fight for every day. The things we survived. The things we live with, and live anyway. Like me, you are brave in your own ways, I’d bet my bottom dollar.

READ: I like to read about the process of writing, and in case you are a writer, you might like these links:

In a pretty low place right now. Pretty low.

three things: 1/14/17

My dear friend Craig has a website called Travel With Craig. He travels a lot and has a particular affinity for Italy; when he first went to Rome, he felt like he’d finally come home. He provides great information about the various places he visits around the world, check out his site! He travels very differently than I do, but I dearly love following his travels, and it’s always one of our most exciting topics of conversation: Where are you going next? One of the fabulous things he came up with for his website is the organization for his posts: Sights, Nights, and Bites. I’ve been thinking about my post from a couple of days ago, about the Wake Up Project and spiritual warriorship, and it all came together for me. Starting today, I’m going to follow Craig’s model and organize my posts in this way:

  • FEED  (“feed your mind beautiful things” — art, poetry, photography, something that will lift and elevate me, and I hope you too)
  • SEED (thoughts about whatever is consuming me, whether personal or world)
  • READ (whatever I’m reading, whether it’s a book or an article about something big or small)

So here goes:

FEED: It’s pouring rain as I write this and the skies are almost invisible, the rain is so thick, so I found myself longing for sunshine.

“The Sunflower,” Gustav Klimt, 1906-1907.

SEED: I am really struggling with my failing memory, and it’s so upsetting that I was even looking up nursing homes that work specifically with people who have lost their memories. There’s one in my Austin neighborhood (prompting Marc to say, “Well that’s good, you can keep all your old friends!”). Yesterday, by the time I got to the end of a thought I couldn’t remember what I’d been thinking, so I can no longer wait until the end of a thought, as I’d been able to do. I have to act the moment I start thinking about something. It’s so upsetting that it even got into a nightmare I had last night, where I was reading but couldn’t make any sense of the words. I could see they were written in English, but I couldn’t tell what it said.

I can remember older things. I can think, and process information. I can do all the things I’ve ever been able to do, I just can’t hold onto thoughts as they happen, things like, “Oh, gotta go brush my teeth.” It’s very much a failure of on-the-fly processing, and it’s terrifying. Doing memory exercises and working puzzles (word and numbers) hasn’t helped me at all, and in fact this seems to be getting worse. Marc said when he was in his mid-50s it happened to him, and it felt like a plummet — and then it stabilized, so the issue is not to fall into despair and catastrophize. I’m still waiting for things to stabilize and I hope it happens soon, because the despair and catastrophizing are sometimes threatening to swamp me.

click the image to go to the Amazon page

READ: I’m reading A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman, and I don’t think it’s a very ‘literary’ book as much as it is a ‘human-story’ book, as if those are separate categories. Ove is a cranky old man, bitter, judgmental of everyone and the world. And heartbroken by the recent death of his wife. Some of the most beautiful passages in the book describe his memory of her laughter:

“She laughed and laughed and laughed until the vowels were rolling across the walls and floors, as if they meant to do away with the laws of time and space.”

“He had never heard anything quite as amazing as that voice. She talked as if she was continuously on the verge of breaking into giggles. And when she giggled she sounded the way Ove imagined champagne bubbles would have sounded if they were capable of laughter.”

But it’s not a saccharine story at all; the passages that show you how Ove views the world are hilarious:

“The husband just nods back at her with an indescribably harmonious smile. The very sort of smile that makes decent folk want to slap Buddhist monks in the face, Ove thinks to himself.”

“Ove glares out of the window. The poser is jogging. Not that Ove is provoked by jogging. Not at all. Ove couldn’t give a damn about people jogging. What he can’t understand is why they have to make such a big thing of it. With those smug smiles on their faces, as if they were out there curing pulmonary emphysema. Either they walk fast or they run slowly, that’s what joggers do. It’s a forty-year-old man’s way of telling the world that he can’t do anything right. Is it really necessary to dress up as a fourteen-year-old Romanian gymnast in order to be able to do it? Or the Olympic tobogganing team? Just because one shuffles aimlessly around the block for three quarters of an hour? And the poser has a girlfriend. The Blond Weed, Ove calls her.”

The most commonly used word to describe this book, as I scan Goodreads and Amazon reviews, is “charming,” and I’d agree. It’s charming. Predictable in plot (exuberant family moves next door and save him from himself), but it’s a very enjoyable read so far. So if you’re looking for something like that, I recommend it! Of all the books I’m reading at the moment, it’s the lightest and easiest to read, and a variety of pleasures as I turn the pages.

Happy Saturday — I hope there is a corner of peace for you somewhere. xoxo

two things: 1/12/17

1) The Wake Up Project is an Australian-centered mission to promote kindness and mindfulness. Five years ago I followed them but somehow I lost track — maybe in one of my occasional email subscription purges, which I regret. Click the link above for more information; I’ve signed up again. One of my dear, dear friends shared the most recent email from the founder, and I thought it was so great I wanted to share it here, and say why/more . . . but first, the email:

With all that’s happening in the world, I see 2017 as a profound call to personal leadership. More accurately, I’d call it an invitation to spiritual warriorship – to train and nourish our heart’s tremendous potential for kindness towards ourselves, each other and the earth.

To me, this means stepping up and honouring the ordinary magic of our daily lives. Learning how to protect our minds, listening for guidance and living from our hearts.

May I offer three areas to focus on this year:

Feed Your Mind Beautiful Things: Never has this been so important. Feed it truth. Feed it inspiration. AKA uplifting literature, wisdom, poetry, comedy, music, podcasts and good journalism. Surround yourself with people who nourish your mind and open you to new possibilities.

Adopt a Practice of Intentional Stillness: Set aside 5-15 minutes a day to relax and rest in the unchangeable part of you. The method doesn’t matter – sit, journal, pray, swim, stretch. It’s all about calming your mind, befriending yourself and listening to what life wants from you.

Once a Week, Pause and Ask Yourself “Who Can I Be Kind To Right Now?”: Really listen. It could be a friend, lover, family member, stranger – or it could be the same person each time. It doesn’t need to be big – e.g. send a text, make a phone call, leave a note. Or it could be big and risky. Step by step, kindness becomes your #1 spiritual practice. Set a weekly alert in your calendar to keep this practice alive.

Always remember….

“There is a LIGHT in this world. A healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, and too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.” ~ Sir David Attenborough

So there it is. This is your year to Wake Up the best in you. To befriend yourself through unapologetic gentleness. To discover a profound rest in your human imperfections. To awaken the revolutionary (and essential) qualities of kindness, courage and creativity. This is spiritual warriorship.

OK! The reason this struck me the way it did is that like most of us, I’ve been just so scared of the incoming government, and a big part of that fear is that we’d all just get worn down and quit fighting. That the media will cave (as they have already done to a large extent), that the fighters will be loud at first but gradually they’ll (we’ll) subside because of exhaustion or because they’re systematically shut down, and that those of us with truly little power will find our powerlessness too hard to accept so we’ll start saying things like, “well, I’m just going to be kind/ paint/ write/ knit” and without diminishing those things AT ALL, they are too easily, I fear, a transition to acceptance of the situation. I’ve been scared of that, and I’ll just claim it for myself: I’ve been scared that will do that.

Te-Ata, Chickasaw

But this letter orients that effort in such a powerful way: spiritual WARRIORSHIP. My mother is descended from a Chickasaw woman named Ela-Teecha, so I am going to imagine myself a spiritual Chickasaw warrior. I found this beautiful photo of a Chickasaw woman named Te-Ata (Bearer of the Morning) and since I don’t have a photo of Ela-Teecha, I will instead hold her in my mind as my spiritual warrior image. (Wasn’t she so beautiful?) The Chickasaw belong to the Five Civilized Tribes, and were relocated, along with the Cherokee, on the Trail of Tears.

And so I will follow the guidance of the Wake Up Project and do the things I’d planned to do, but as spiritual warriorship. Somehow that feels different to me — and I will march and protest and write emails and make calls, too. And that is enough for one powerless person.

2) Speaking of Ela-Teecha, here’s what I know about her:

A friend did a quick exploration for me through Ancestry.com and uncovered so much information — often thrilling, sometimes painful (slave owners in Georgia) — and in the documents, she found this. I read it again and again, and adore “married into the great Choctaw family of Leflores.” The description of Ela-Teecha sounds exactly like my mother, exactly: straight black hair, very high cheek bones, and small black eyes … — medium size and slender build. That description can of course look a lot of different ways, and she undoubtedly looked nothing like my mother, but my mother fit the description too and that’s a bit eerie.

Ela-Teecha, my ancestorOH!! I found her! After she married Smith Paul she went by the Anglicized name Ellen. She lived from 1797 to 1871, and if I joined Ancestry, I could also see her grave, and probably find out exactly where she is buried. Wow. For a rootless person like me, that feels utterly amazing. I was able to snag her tree without joining:

I love that one of her sons was named Tecumseh, and another Mississippi. I’m unsure which of her children led to me, but I think that must be knowable. My father’s paternal line is a series of abrupt, violent stops, but that’s not my whole story. I know my father’s mother descended from a line of Alabama Coushatta, so on both sides I am descended from native people and their toughness and resilience live through me.

This is not really of interest to anyone but me, but I’m glad to stash this here for later finding.

Find your own model, if that will help, or maybe you don’t need one, maybe you are ready and able to fight your own way, just out of your own core. #resistance

three things: 1/11/17

1)  I think a lot about the truthiness of things, and of course I have my historical, personal reasons for it. I read this passage in Fall on Your Knees, a powerful book by Anne-Marie MacDonald, and it has stayed with me:

“It’s a sin for Lily to let Mercedes think it was Daddy who beat up Frances. But he has done it in the past. Surely truth can be borrowed across time without perishing. Shelf life, so to speak.”

“Surely truth can be borrowed across time….” That. And the shelf life of truth, that too. Freud talked about ‘screen memories,’ one that may in itself be false but that masks a deeper, true memory of great emotional significance. And in Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch said,

“The more a person recalls a memory, the more they change it. Each time they put it into language, it shifts. The more you describe a memory, the more likely it is that you are making a story that fits your life, resolves the past, creates a fiction you can live with. It’s what writers do. Once you open your mouth, you are moving away from the truth of things. According to neuroscience, the safest memories are locked in the brains of people who can’t remember. Their memories remain the closest replica of actual events. Underwater. Forever.”

And so, as I continue this extremely difficult process of writing my two memoirs, and as I myself am not always absolutely certain about the truth of my memories in certain aspects, the truth of my own experiences even when my body knows the fact of them, the question of the unreliable narrator haunts me. I’m unreliable in so very many ways — including the mere fact of having told my stories a number of times — and yet I insist on the deep truth of all my memories, of all my experiences. Did this experience happen like this in the moment I am writing about, in this specific scene? Can I borrow truth across time without losing its truth? I insist that I can. Owning, telling, remembering, writing the truth of your life is not the same as being on a witness stand accusing another person of a specific crime, for which they can be judged and punished.

Right? I think so. (And if you are strong, read Chronology of Waterhere’s my GoodReads review, it was such a powerful story. The link also includes the material I highlighted, passages I loved for one reason or another.)

And in a funny twist, this quote was in my quote widget (in the right sidebar) when I was writing:

“A common feature of many theories of trauma is the idea that the causative—the wounding—event is not remembered but relived, as it is in the flashbacks of combat veterans, experienced anew with a visceral immediacy that affords no critical distance. To remember something, you have to consign it to the past—put it behind you—but trauma remains in the present; it fills that present entirely. You are inside it. Your mouth is always filled with the taste of blood. The killers are always crashing through the brush behind you. Some researchers believe that trauma bypasses the normal mechanisms of memory and engraves itself directly on some portion of the brain, like a brand. Cattle are branded to signify that they are someone’s property, and so, too, were slaves. The brand of trauma signifies that henceforth you yourself are property, the property of that which has injured you. The psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi believed that trauma is characterized by the victim’s helpless identification with the perpetrator, and elsewhere in the literature one often comes across the word “possession.” The moment of trauma marks an event horizon after which memory ceases. Or else memory breaks down, so that the victim can reconstruct the event but not the feeling that accompanied it, or alternatively only the feeling.” —Peter Trachtenberg

2)  Here’s a poem I really love, and hope you like it, too:

REALISM (Beth Bachmann)

God said, your name is mud
and the thing about mud is you
got to throw it down
repeatedly
to remove the air
and sometimes cut it
and rejoin it with another part.
If stars are made of dust,
it’s not the same stuff,
God said;
you can’t make a hut out of it,
only heaven,
and when I said dust to dust,
that’s not what I meant.

3) I read a collection of short stories by a new (to me!) writer named Carl MacDougall — Someone Always Robs the Poor. He’s a very well-established Scottish writer, and the stories are set almost entirely in Scotland and most are about alcohol in some way, and frequently violence.

The stories often left me stunned, like the powerful story “Korsakoff’s Psychosis” that took me right into the experience of a late-stage alcoholic, with all the horrors of that life. It was hard to read that story, and hard to look away even though I wanted to, because the prose slipped me right into the terrible, tragic remnants of mind. The story “William John MacDonald” broke the narrative form to tell a terrible sad story (one of many stories related to drunk men) of a young man’s tragic encounter with violence and drinking. On occasion I had to read a page a few times — in part because of cultural references that weren’t familiar to me, and in part because of the style of storytelling. I was always glad to read and re-read.

On the whole, the stories were sad and tragic, although they were never told with melodrama. Instead, they were quiet and deeply emotional, and I sometimes paused when one ended, and held it for a long while before I slipped into the next. What a powerful collection of stories that will haunt me. I read and ARC, and the book won’t be published until February 23, but I heartily recommend it. It’s a quick read; I read the bulk of it on the flight from New York to Austin, about 3.5 hours.

three things: 1/6/17

1)  Today I’ll lead with a piece of art I love, and I’ll bet you could make a good guess about where the artist, Jane Parker, is from:

roughly 24 by 30 inches, gouache and ink and color on heavy paper

This piece just makes my mind vibrate, and I feel the vibrations come down into my whole body. I really love it — and the colors, that turquoise and the orange, so alive together. She is Australian, which felt immediately knowable to me when I saw her work. The tiny dots, right? I absolutely do know that not all Australian art has the tiny dots, the aboriginal dots, but if dots, then aboriginal / Australian, more or less, for a pretty solid first guess. One of my favorite Australians is a woman named Fiona Edmonds Dobrijevich; I mentioned her underwater photography a few posts ago (follow her on Instagram, where she’s @fifi_dob), and she’s also a beautiful painter. I love her still lives and whatever else she paints, but at the moment I’m enamored of her underwater paintings. Fiona swims in the ocean every single day (around Sydney I believe) and she doesn’t count it a good day unless she has swum with sharks. She is very different from me in this way. 🙂

2) I’ve been thinking about this thing and I don’t think I can articulate it exactly right just yet, but it’s this: Each person holds a whole, complete universe inside them, a whole, fully peopled, memoried world, and when they’re gone it’s all gone too. Me, you, all of us. Whole worlds. It’s not like we’re just individuals walking around, we’re whole worlds. A world full of worlds. It’s led me to see things so differently, this thought; I look out my New York window at people on the sidewalk, and I see universes passing by, universes colliding and crossing paths.

I move my hands to music in the way the song leader at my childhood church led the songs. No one knows that’s what I’m doing, so while Marc is making our dinner and we’re listening to Sia sing “Breathe Me,” and my hand starts moving, it seems like a random weirdo thing but it’s the Loving Highway Church of Christ, Tommy Thompson leading the music, the smell of the songbooks, my mother’s stale coffee breath but her strong voice carrying the harmony line always, the lush sound of the minor harmonies all around me, surrounding me. The girl with the port wine birthmark staining 3/4 of her face in three-dimensional strangeness. My dad in his suit, miserable because he didn’t get to have a drink yet. That’s all there with me as I move my hands in 2017, in New York, and no one knows it. I carry them, bring them into the world with me. When I die, no one will remember my father as a living person. The Loving Highway Church of Christ is gone now, and eventually there will be no one alive who remembers going to that old building, who remembers Tommy Thompson leading the singing.

A song from Elton John’s Greatest Hits album, mid-1970s, is in the air — Rocket Man, let’s say — and I’m sitting on the splintered wooden steps of the mobile home in Wichita Falls, handstitching those red sequins on that gray T-shirt, a big glittery heart, and that whole world reemerges in its full memory and sensory detail, a real world, a world I know, feeling states and body states, each connected outward to people and places, Hirschi High School, summer band camp, all blooming while the song plays. That world lies inside me, dormant usually, but ready to bloom when any of those songs plays. I can’t even share it with you properly, no matter how fully I describe it, but in me it’s vivid and as alive as I am, and when I die all of that will disappear. I can’t quite get this articulated the way I want to express it, but this is what I have right now and I can’t stop thinking about it.

3) I vaguely remembered a poem and looked through my computer, and after a few online stumbles I came across a fabulous site called Language is a Virus. If you are a writer or lover of language from any direction, check it out and bookmark it, as I did. Among other things, it provides a daily writing prompt, and yesterday’s was “Write about the strangest thing you own.”

Well, since I had to buy every single thing anew when I moved in October 2012, I don’t really have any strange things, but immediately I thought of one of the two things I have that belonged to my dad (the other being a little wooden boat he created as a kid). I don’t know what the thing is called, so I image-googled ‘clicker counter’ and there it was. This one looks almost exactly like mine, except this one is on a little stand and mine has a metal loop because it was handheld. He’d put his left index finger through the loop and hold it in his hand and use it when he was looking through a set of plans to count architectural elements: how many fuse boxes, how many studs, etc. I don’t know the details for sure, but I think he was a draftsman. I know he worked for an architectural firm called Page Southerland Page, which used to be a small office in Austin on West Avenue (whenever I’m driving on W 6th and I pass by the old location, it blooms back into existence). I can see him sitting at his drafting table, using a carmine pencil to touch the elements as he counted them all, clicking clicking clicking the count. I have absolutely no idea how I ended up with his clicker, couldn’t even make up a story about that, and it’s amazing that somehow I still have it 35 years (and countless moves) after his death, but I do. It’s rusty and beaten-up, dented, but obviously a counting device so it can only seem so strange, but it’s strange enough. I guess this is another thing that relates to my previous wondering — the whole world we each carry. When I die, and someone is going through my things, this will likely be picked up, turned over, frowned-over a bit, and then tossed in the throwaway pile. What’s that? Who knows, pitch. And there will go a piece of the world. There will go not just the knowledge of what it was, but carmine pencils, and the old location of that firm on West Avenue, and Bob Tieman and the other architects who were so good to my dad even when he was too drunk to work, and the summer parties the firm threw in Northwest Park, and my mother dressed in 1960s style with her fall and capri pants, and on and on and on….

Somewhere I have a picture of one of those PSP summer parties, but I couldn’t find it — instead I found this, a houseboat party on Lake Travis, probably a PSP party. That’s my mother in the front, wearing the big sunglasses (I remember her sewing her outfit), and my dad holding the Jolly Roger up so it could be seen. I think I also remember my mother sewing that flag. I imagine the others in the photo are architects from PSP. All of this comes to life when I see the clicker. They look happy there, 1966 I think, and back then I believe my dad could still be happy when he was drunk, which he certainly was in this picture. I think my mother still believed that my dad could take her somewhere.

[even though I frequently wrote “when I die” in this post, I am not feeling death-gloomy at all! My time at MoMA really did lift my spirits, as is this daily focus on art, what medicine.] [xoxoxoxox]

the pipes are calling

Starting 59! Heck yeah!
Starting 59! Heck yeah!

My birthday was really wonderful this year, and I worry about driving everyone crazy talking about it, but whatev, folks. I’d like to be this way about your birthday, too! Christmas is about something else, Thanksgiving too, but one’s birthday is a day focused just on your own life, your own trip, your own hopes and experiences (good and difficult), and I always think that is a thing to be celebrated.

So here is a short list of things I wanted to share with someone, throughout the day yesterday. I hope one or more of them catches you, too!

  • I have Scottish sympathies — those highlands, the bleak sweep, the range of stories that have that landscape as their setting, oof. I’d love to spend a year there so I could know it in all seasons, and learn it beyond the snapshot stereotype I have of it. The pipes have always sung to me, not just because I love weirdo instruments (banjo and accordion, not that think they’re weird!), but because I really want to play them. I’ll reveal a weirdo secret: I practice what it would be like to play them. Filling the bag with air, squeezing the bag with my arm, fingering the chanter, which I think would be natural to me given my years of flute playing. I’ll sometimes close my eyes and pretend I’m playing the pipes. Now you know. 🙂 Nancy sent me this “for the kick-off to [my] 59th year of triumph” and I loved it so much:

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The pure joy on the cellist’s face was enough! But then the coming-in of the pipers, that filled me with joy.

  • I’m in a number of secret Facebook groups, and each one is a haven of one kind or another. One is a temporary group for the month of November, focused on daily posts of gratitude. Yesterday a woman wrote this, and it was a huge gift to me:

I’m grateful for discernment, for thinking things through and evaluating what is best for me, what and who will add to my life instead of becoming a burden to me. I am so grateful to be aware that it is worth it to pause for a moment and ask, do I like this?, how do I really feel about this person?, are they a giver or a taker? So many times I have looked to be liked or accepted and have not paused to ask myself, what is in it for me? What and who am I taking on? Well, I am grateful that I am taking care of myself and asking those questions now.

YES to that! I’m in the process of developing that kind of discernment, of letting go of people who aren’t right for me and my life — and it isn’t that there is something wrong with them, it’s just time to let go, you know — and there is something both self-nurturing and liberating about it. The process of letting go with a breath and a smile, and understanding that as discernment, is such a gift of aging, and another woman’s words. This general idea also melds with something my poetry friend Hadiya posted yesterday:

Belong first in my own interiority. If I belong here, and if I am in rhythm with myself and connected to my deep, unique source within, then I will not be vulnerable when my outside belonging is qualified, relativized, or taken away. I will be able to stand on my own ground, the ground of my soul, where I am not a tenant, where I am at home. My interiority is the ground from which nobody [or nothing] can distance, exclude, or exile me. This is my treasure. —John O’Donohue (Adapted by Hadiya, 2012)

 

Doesn’t this fit beautifully with the idea of discernment, as the other woman described it? It’s about standing within, holding and knowing your own ground, and deciding from there, as a personal and ethical stance. Lots for me to think about, here.

  • My extraordinary friend Val sent me a book of poetry for my birthday, Nobody’s Jackknife. OOF, I can’t recommend it to you strongly enough. Val is always doing something like that, sending me just the right music, just the right words, just the right emotional connection, just when I most need it. You should be so lucky to have friends like I have, I’m telling you. Here’s one of the poems from this gorgeous collection by Ellen McGrath Smith:

Traum Song

Life is painful, sad, and methodical.
I must not say that.
Ever to confess
(remember when I thought I was
a lioness that night in May
and could have made six babies?)
Facts are thinner recourses.
Born: day month year
Died: day month year
Nothing new here people!!!
Just two doors or one
that swings two ways.

I’ve a pound of flounder in the fridge,
some lemon and organic butter,
a seep of parsley in the backyard snow,
two cats, a grown child & a love companion
with a weak aortic valve.
My fear is ticking too tall for the shelf
so I bend ninety minutes to the floor,
the guru streaming in through my PC
telling me the shape I’m in.

The light in me, the light in me
Christ I want it to
see the light in you—

So many of the poems center around a yoga pose, and every one is worth lingering over.

  • Today’s picture is courtesy of the Facebook “On This Day” heartbreaker. Yesterday I opened Facebook on my phone, and this was on the screen, without giving me a moment to prepare my heart:
November 7, 2011. We had met for breakfast, and he can never let me just take a picture of him. Either he pulls a face, or suddenly hangs a spoon on his nose or something. It was a heart punch to see his face, which I miss so terribly.
November 7, 2011. We had met for breakfast, and he can never let me just take a picture of him. Either he pulls a face, or suddenly hangs a spoon on his nose or something. It was a heart punch to see his face, which I miss so terribly.

Today is [finally] Election Day, and with all my heart and soul I hope our country elects Hillary Clinton. With all my heart and soul. I don’t know what will happen to us if we don’t. Vote, vote, vote, vote.

I just like to share!

Through the terrible stress of this everlasting nightmare of our presidential election, I have relied on a number of ways of coping — some have been good, and some have NOT been so good. And I’ve been inconsistent in using the good ones, perhaps because the benefit isn’t immediate and my stress is begging for immediate relief (even though they help me more, and without causing trouble). Yoga, walking, cooking beautiful and healthy food, meditation, those have flickered in and out of use.

My less-good ways of coping have filled me with junk. Other stresses. And even though I know this, going in — as I eat another donut, or another BLOCK O’ CHEESE — I often feel completely unable to stop myself. In New York especially, since Marc keeps a fridge just about as opposite mine as possible, and since he makes things for me like gravlax, my stress eating is less good for me than when I’m in Austin. After I inhale a pound of cheese, let’s say, I feel very crappy (to say the least, and I’m trying to say the least, here).

Another way I’ve been dealing with this stress has been a constant consuming of social media. I am on Facebook non-stop, and while I am reading and responding to posts that present the same political position I share, and that help me feel less alone, it also keeps me stirred up. But it’s become a compulsion, an impossible-to-resist response to stress.

It’s also true that when I’m here in Austin, I sit alone in my house day in and day out. I will have a little social activity here or there, but I sit in silence all day and night, and without anyone else to interact with at all. And I like that! It’s not that I don’t like that. I really do, especially in the days after I’ve been in New York and feel overwhelmed by people and noise and non-stop interruptions. The silence and solitude are wonderful! AND again and again I’ll think about something, or read something, or see something, and turn to share it with…… ah, no one. There’s no one here. No one to say, “Hey, listen to this!” to. And so that’s another reason I hop onto Facebook. Wow, look at this. Hey, you won’t believe this! Ah, read this beautiful thing. Look. Listen. Read. Wow.

I’ve missed my blog. My absence from it has been due to a lot of reasons; I’m doing other writing, long-form writing, and trying to spend my time in that manuscript, and otherwise I’ve been kind of blanked-out with stress and fear. It occurred to me that I could help myself with two of these things in one fell swoop: Instead of machine gunning Facebook, I can collect the things I want to share with someone and put them in a post here. That will have the benefit of making them easier for me to find again, too. Aside from political stuff (which I will not share here because I just really need to avoid it all completely for my own sanity), the stuff I share will fall into the ordinary categories of things I share on Facebook: book recommendations, interesting articles, poetry, images, family stuff.

And so, here goes:

  • Do you know Hélène Cixous? I hadn’t heard of her until I read a quote about her by Lidia Yuknavitch, so I looked her up and now I must MUST read her. This quote seems especially relevant in the United States as we are teetering on the brink of living under a Christian Taliban: “But I am just a woman who thinks her duty is not to forget. And this duty, which I believe I must fulfill, is: “as a woman” living now I must repeat again and again “I am a woman,” because we exist in an epoch still so ancient and ignorant and slow that there is still always the danger of gynocide.” ― Hélène Cixous, The Book of Promethea
lidia
read Lidia.
  • The quote from Lidia Yuknavitch that sent me to Hélène Cixous was from The Chronology of Water, which I highly recommend: “With Hélène Cixous you must close your eyes and open your mouth. Wider. So open your throat opens. Your esophagus. Your lungs. Wider. So open your spine unclatters. Your hips swim loose. Your womb worlds itself. Wider. Open the well of your sex. Now speak your body from your other mouth. Yell corporeal prayer. This is writing.” WOW.
  • Have you ever read May Sarton? I’ve always wanted to and somehow never have, yet, but yesterday Sherlock sent Peggy and me this BrainPickings post about May Sarton and the use of anger in creativity. That’s a thing you hear, right? “Turn your anger towards your work.” Transform that energy into creation. I need to carefully read that piece and think about it, because I hope it has something for me. I am swamped by the experience of anger, overwhelmed by it, and often paralyzed by it. So when I feel it, I become scared that I’ll explode, that I’ll express it awfully, and often I do, and it’s just tough, and especially tough for women. I once asked members of my book club to write about a time they were angry (we were tentatively trying these writing sessions), and one member became absolutely enraged at my suggestion, saying she doesn’t get angry because it’s not useful. The time didn’t seem right to point out just how angry she was. 🙂 But I am in desperate need of learning how to manage anger! It’s my oldest lesson I have yet to learn, so I’m hoping the BrainPickings post and then reading some Sarton will help. Any words you might have on either Sarton or anger will be appreciated.
  • The idea of living in Australia or New Zealand has become kind of irresistible; a thread developed on a Facebook post by a friend who originally shared this video:

[embedplusvideo height=”450″ width=”640″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/2f42PPI” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/9v97xH6Bof0?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=9v97xH6Bof0&width=640&height=450&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=0&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep7574″ /]

[First…I mean, RIGHT????] One friend responded to the video by asking me what it’s like to live here right now, and in the ensuing conversation, I got invitations to move to all the major cities of Australia, with explanations of their great aspects, and a bunch of bids for life in NZ, which is not just gorgeous but is also lacking in snakes. 🙂 They were just so adorable, every last one, and every time I woke up during the night, mid-Trump-panic, reading that thread made me grin so hard.

  • Today’s poem: Carpe Diem, by Jim Harrison:

Night and day
seize the day, also the night —
a handful of water to grasp.
The moon shines off the mountain
snow where grizzlies look for a place
for the winter’s sleep and birth.
I just ate the year’s last tomato
in the year’s fatal whirl.
This is mid-October, apple time.
I picked them for years.
One Mcintosh yielded sixty bushels.
It was the birth of love that year.
Sometimes we live without noticing it.
Overtrying makes it harder.
I fell down through the tree grabbing
branches to slow the fall, got the afternoon off.
We drove her aqua Ford convertible into the country
with a sack of red apples. It was a perfect
day with her sun-brown legs and we threw ourselves
into the future together seizing the day.
Fifty years later we hold each other looking
out the windows at birds, making dinner,
a life to live day after day, a life of
dogs and children and the far wide country
out by rivers, rumpled by mountains.
So far the days keep coming.
Seize the day gently as if you loved her.

Happy Saturday, y’all! It’s going to be a great one for me — birthday lunch with a friend, and the lit crawl tonight with poetry group friends. Also: It’s my BIRTHDAY EVE YO! xoxoxoxo

TODAY"S PHOTO: Marnie is in Seattle to exhibit her new book, and she sent me this picture, note the caption. :)
TODAY”S PHOTO: Marnie is in Seattle to exhibit her new book, and she sent me this picture, note the caption. 🙂

perfect knowledge

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about perfect knowledge, after realizing that again and again I was wishing for it — I just want to know exactly why people came to vote for the completely monstrous Trump, for example, how did that happen? I don’t mean the equally monstrous alt-right people in this country, I mean all the rest. How did that happen? I want to understand it completely. That’s maybe not even the best example of the spate of wishes I’ve had lately, but it’s the only one I can think of because I am so absolutely terrified of him right now my fear is consuming me.

f1And then, without quite [at least perfectly] realizing that the book focused in part on this theme, I started reading Frankenstein for the first time. I actually started reading it because the Lars Book Club was reading it (especially fun to follow via her Instagram account, because she finds the most extraordinary images to accompany each book). This is one of those books I always meant to read but for one reason or another I thought it wasn’t right for me, like my idiocy in thinking I wasn’t smart enough to read Moby Dick….and we see how that turned out! I’m not sure what deep prejudice kept me from reading Frankenstein, because I did always want to. And it’s extraordinary, and what surprises me most is how much I detest Victor Frankenstein. Detest him, completely. He sought perfect knowledge in terms of creating life, and then when he did, and looked at his creation, he flung him away and threw his hatred on him, again and again and again. And everyone suffered for it.

f2Of course this is the same moral as Adam and Eve in the garden; everything but perfect knowledge, y’all — can’t have that, the consequences will be fatal. “How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein). (Without meaning to circle back to Trump, though, that quote reminds me of the recent report showing that one big predictor of voting for him is if you still live in the same hometown you grew up in. Hmmm. The danger of not seeking knowledge, right there.) Setting aside the fact that perfect knowledge simply isn’t attainable, no matter how much we may yearn for it, why is it always cast in such terrible terms, I wonder? Is it just our Bible-focused western culture that raises that spectre, that threatens us? Is it that this framework only allows God to have perfect knowledge, so anyone who attempts or reaches for it is threatening God, or seeking to be like God? Is that it? As a method, science understands perfect knowledge as an accretion, each scientist adding his tiny thread onto the pile, a final Truth very rarely acquired and held in place with the eternal possibility of a conflicting finding toppling it to the ground.

In my recent obsession about this idea, I’ve also been thinking about my desire to be known . . . fully and accurately. I got on a jag of watching every version of Annie Lennox singing “Why” that I could possibly find. The line from that song that always crushes me — crushed me when I was getting divorced and feeling completely unknown by my husband, and crushes me still to this day is

And this is how I feel
Do you know how I feel?
‘Cause I don’t think you know how I feel
I don’t think you know what I feel
I don’t think you know what I feel
You don’t know what I feel

Of the many versions, I think this my favorite because of the way she performs the last stanza, with the dramatic STOP.

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That kills me. I’m no slouch at telling people how I feel, and I’m pretty sophisticated at understanding and describing my emotions. No alexithymia here, folks. But there is a huge gap between what is said and what is heard, and everything falls into that gap. The listener doesn’t hear perfectly, and even in the telling, the teller gets it wrong. I even get it wrong, in part because the current moment is attached to so many different things that plucking it out of that constellation to tell it gets it wrong. But how I long to be perfectly understood — for my mistakes, my longings, my fears, what’s underneath, what I’m trying to do. And how I would love to perfectly understand those in my life! I long to do that.

The world is stewing in hate, and the temperature is coming to a boil. Why? Why? I want to know, I want to understand, and it’s a HUGE picture to take in, so many variables feeding in, but perhaps it’s just one or two, and the story is too complex to see since I only have my tiny spot to stand on. And what would I do with that perfect knowledge, anyway? Maybe it would be a torment, because I could not change anything. Maybe I would see that it’s really simple, but it looks a terrifying mess and unless everyone else knew, too, it would simply come to its rolling boil and I would understand why but be helpless. I’m helpless now, anyway, and it feels terrible. Would it feel more terrible if I understood, perfectly?

I’m getting nowhere except lost-er. Scared-er. Despairing-er.

on the misnomer of “mentally ill”

meBefore I say anything else, I’ll claim it: I deal with mental illness. I’m not embarrassed by that, or ashamed of it, and I don’t think it means I’m weak, or broken, or less-than anyone in the world. This simply is, in the same way that I am tall, I have blue eyes, and my smile is gummy. All that simply is. (That doesn’t mean I’ve always been accepting of and happy about those things, except the blue eyes, but they’re all true whether I am happy and accepting of them or not. They simply are true of me.)

But I do very much take issue with two things: the idea that this relates to weakness or brokenness, and the terminology. I assume this was first termed “mental” illness to contrast it with “physical” illness — as if those are discrete, non-overlapping islands of experience — but my own experience, and the experiences of others I know, relate more to a framing as an emotional or psychological illness. I’m not sure what bugs me so much about framing all these struggles as mental illness, exactly, but I do think it’s the apparent separation from physical, which is mystifying, and also that it just drifts too far away from the experience, which then means people are on the wrong track when they try to understand others.

If I told you I suffer with an emotional illness, what would you ask me? Are you sad? Are you anxious? Are you scared? Do you feel despair? Do you feel like it’s too hard? Those questions get right at the nub of it, don’t they? Yes, when my depression is with me again, I am sad, and scared, and I feel despair, and like it’s too hard. When I answer those questions you understand something about me. I could also tell you that my brain chemicals are wacky, but what do you do with that, exactly? That’s a potential treatment approach that a doctor might help me with, but it doesn’t tell anyone anything.

And then there are other kinds of emotional/psychological illness, some of which I also deal with but have learned to keep closer to my chest because they are too frequently misunderstood. I’m not being cagey about them, and again I don’t think they mean I am broken or weak or less-than anyone, but they require more careful language and much more careful listening (and frankly, it’s the more-careful listening that’s the biggest problem). I’m talking here about different kinds of psychosis, for example, some of which are transient, some of which are nevertheless understood by the person in the midst of the experience, and some of which are devastating and debilitating, like the real tragedy of schizophrenia. People are starting to talk more openly about psychosis, and if you don’t know her already, Elyn Saks is an extraordinary woman with schizophrenia that roared forward while she was a student at Yale. Her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, is exceptionally good at letting you see that illness from the inside, and her TED talk will leave you amazed. I saw her speak in NYC and with the rest of the audience, listened with my mouth open, in amazement.

But even more than my wish that these experiences were called “emotional illness” instead of “mental illnesses,” I wish they were conceptualized differently. They do not mean that we are broken. They do not mean that we are weak. They certainly don’t mean we are less than anyone else who does not have these experiences. Having these experiences simply means that we have these struggles, these painful experiences, these difficulties to deal with. Maybe they become so debilitating that it’s hard to keep a job, but much more often they simply mean that we suffer, and we too often feel all alone with that suffering. I hate that. I won’t draw the kinds of parallels that people usually draw with a physical illness (most often to diabetes or cancer, both of which people are also blamed for, at times….), but I will say that the suffering is real. If you know that someone you love is suffering and you dismiss it, well, you might want to examine that a little bit.

I do suffer. Partly I suffer even without emotional illness because I feel everything so intensely, and because I truly think that to live my life the best way I possibly can, that’s what I’m here to do. I’m not here just to deeply experience the “happy” bits, and to shunt off all the rest as quickly as I can. I’m definitely not here to take the position that well, that doesn’t serve me so I won’t feel it. I think it all serves us, and deepens us, and allows us to grow and learn more about who we are. And so I suffer when my experience is painful. AND I suffer quite terribly from periodic and chronic depression, and sometimes from suicidality. AND I suffer from PTSD, which also includes some strange experiences I’ll write about one of these days. And you know what? Not only do I reject anyone’s notion that therefore I’m weak, I instead say (with a bit of a fuck-you attitude) that actually, I’m stronger than most people I know. I’m strong enough to go there. I’m strong enough to come back. I’m strong enough to stand there and look at it in the face. I’m strong enough to go from here to there:

Yep. Strong enough to go from there to there and back again, strong enough to endure and get richer, and sometimes just strong enough to survive it. Strong enough not to be broken by the pain and sorrow and struggle. It’s the opposite of weak to sit inside that suffering, man, and anyone who has ever been there will give a very loud AMEN to that.

Can I get an amen on that up in here?
Can I get an AMEN on that up in here?

help me make it through the night

Kris Kristofferson wrote some of the best old songs — songs others made famous, but those of us who know, know. Today I’m thinking about this one, made famous (at least to me) by husky-voiced Tammy Wynette:

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I have an extremely hard time asking for help when I am at my most desperate, when I am most in need. It feels too close to making someone else responsible for saving my life, and that’s not fair to do to anyone. I’m trying to learn how to think more subtly about this, how not to cast it in black and white, how to understand that just because I am in trouble and need some help, it’s not about suicide. Because it hasn’t been about suicide, and even last night when I was in deep, deep, deep need, I was not suicidal. I just needed some help to make it through.

As I cried in despair, I thought about the long list of people I know, people who love me, and knew that there was a sublist I could call on, without fail, and they would answer. They would be there. Dear friends, some who have already helped me with this before, like Anne. Some who have offered themselves to me in such heartfelt ways, I had no worries about reaching out.

But first I tried to write, my lifelong impulse. And this is what came out:

I find myself really wishing she’d just drowned us all, like a bag of kittens, and then they’d killed each other. The whole bunch, gone before the world could be hurt any more, before the little kittens could be hurt any more. Before the little kittens could grow up and hurt each other, themselves, others.

And so, obviously, I needed help to make it through. I walked down to the Hudson, through beautiful but dark Riverside Park, and texted a very dear friend, who texted me back immediately. Lots of back and forth, lots of her writing my name over and over — Lori. Lori. Lori. Lori. — and it’s weird how that helped. In The Woman Warrior, I learned that when a Chinese person is lost inside themselves, apparently you waggle their ears repeatedly and say their name over and over, to call them back. How Nancy knew to do that, I don’t know, but something about her saying my name like that, in addition to all the rest, all the understanding and care and compassion and empathy and telling me our plans, she got me through.

I think the tide has turned. I feel so much better this morning. I feel and recognize myself again, myself right now. I even felt like reading a funny poem. I feel eager to get home to Austin, back to my cozy little home, and what happens with my brother will happen but I’m not afraid anymore.

Pete and Oliver
Pete and Oliver

I’m Lori. Grandmother to Oliver and Ilan, and a little girl to come in September. Mother to Katie and Marnie and Will. Friend of many generous and loving people. Lover of poetry and literature and beautiful words. Understander of the pain and suffering of life, and the beauty and glory of it, too.

I’m so glad to be here. Sometimes it really sucks, and sometimes it’s really glorious, and sometimes it just takes time to travel from one to the next. xoxoxoxo

lonelys

I’m not a lonely person in almost all the possible ways. I am so deeply rich with people: family —  daughters and their husbands, two grandsons, another grandchild on the way — and friends all over the world. Boon companions in Austin, darlings in NYC, old and newer friends scattered around the country, bunches scattered around the earth, and a number of close communities of women I rely on. Rich!

I’m so deeply rich with interests. I have never been bored, don’t know what that even feels like. I have more things I want to do than time to do them in. I have books to write. Quilts to make. Sweaters and things to knit. Clothes to make. Meals to prepare. Goodies to bake. Yoga to do. Walks to take. Museums to visit and talks and performances to attend in NYC, never enough time. Music to listen to in Austin, never enough time. Books to read! NEVER enough time for that. Travel! Even though I travel a lot, more than anyone else I know, I could always just keep on going and I’d be happy.

I’m rich with people to share emotions, experiences, the details of life. They share with me, I share with them, and that’s extraordinary. However I am, whatever I need, wherever I find myself, I’m rich with people to talk to about it. That’s just unbelievable. Something wonderful happen? Something terrible? There they are, ready and willing to talk with me, or to share theirs with me.

readingBut I realized the other day that there is a way I’m lonely. If you have more than one child, you know that the ways they are different provide different opportunities for you to connect with them. When my kids were growing up, Marnie loved to read exactly the same kinds of books I did, so we’d read together and talk about the books in depth. I took my kids individually out on dates, and Marnie and I usually ended up at the book store, walking around touching every book: “read it. read it. haven’t read it. never heard of it. want to read it. read it. read it. nah. want to read it.” One summer she spent some days reading Grendel aloud to me while I spun some wool. It’s still one of my favorite memories. When she left home, every time we talked our conversation always included talk about what we were reading, with eager recommendations that we followed up on.

I miss that. I’m lonely for that. I’m lonely for someone who really wants to read what I’m reading and is as excited as I am to talk about it. For someone who has already thought about the book and hopefully saw things I didn’t see, understood parts I didn’t — or understood them differently! I also really love to do this with movies and good TV, and it has less to do with plot points and more to do with the novelistic aspects OR what the director did. I’m always aware of this loneliness, but my monthly poetry group fulfills some of the need and longing because we sit in my living room for two hours and talk about poetry. And they’re all just as excited (and MUCH more knowledgeable) about it as I am.

So I’ve just been going along, feeling very alone, but busy! You know, I’m busy, and I don’t have enough spare minutes in the day already so it’s not like I wallow. BUT THEN I found this really wonderful video series from the AV Club; the guys discuss each episode (season 2 only) of Better Call Saul in depth. They analyze it, compare notes, consider theories, show film clips and pause to look at a specific shot, they see so much more in the episodes than you see if you’re just dazzled by the show. Here they discuss episode 1 of season 2:

It made my mind so so happy. So happy. I felt like a dry sponge that got dropped at the edge of a lake, and I felt myself soaking, soaking, soaking it up. And it also made me feel my deep loneliness for someone to talk to in this way . . . about good books, about movies and TV. I’ve got my heart stuff covered, but I have this intellectual craving and I feel so lonely with it. I think that’s one reason I sometimes write thicker posts, esoteric posts, and one reason I set up my 2016 project (which I want to return to). I’ve never really had anyone else in my life like Marnie, in terms of this kind of conversation, and I’m just so lonely for that.

I’m lucky that I don’t otherwise feel lonely — very lucky. I never feel all those other kinds of loneliness, even when I spend several days hidden away at home in Austin, never even leaving the house. That kind of loneliness hurts, and makes people sick. It doesn’t make my own island of loneliness go away, but it does give me context. I imagine we all have a way we’re lonely, and this one is mine. It’s hard to say it out loud, because the last thing I want is for any of my beautiful friends to feel like I’m saying something against them or our relationship, and yet they all have their own ways I don’t fulfill their needs — I’m not a sports fan, for instance.

SO….if you’re lonely in this way, let’s talk! It might not be a love match, but you never know. 😉

emoji

In the days leading up to Ilan’s birth, Marnie and I watched a lot of old seasons of Top Chef to help pass the time. I can’t remember now which season it was, or which cheftestant (surely the stupidest word ever created) said it, but one of them said something about the critical importance of not showing your feelings. And I can’t remember now which feeling was under discussion—excitement, fear, sadness, worry—because it really doesn’t matter. That’s not an uncommon position, I guess, and it’s typically framed as being “strong.”

This really bewilders me.

I think I know all these personally.
I think I know all these personally.

Sure, there are situations in which it’s helpful to manage your emotions and conceal them during an interaction, but I think it’s many fewer than people think. In fact, I think concealing your emotions is more likely to cause problems than it is to help. “Why didn’t you tell me you felt that way?” How often have you heard something like that? Or said it yourself? Especially since people often show a different emotion when they’re concealing a difficult one, such as when they’re scared, they instead appear angry. What a difference it would make if you knew the other person was just scared and not furious, right?

I think people are scared of their emotions. Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard, and my responses:

  1. If I feel/express [emotion….anger, sadness, fear, etc.] I won’t be able to stop! Yes you will! You’ll be surprised. You can really only cry for so long before you’re exhausted and then you want a pizza. Or whatever. You might cry again, but you will stop. You won’t just keep raging with anger, it’s exhausting. Forcing yourself not to feel something doesn’t work. Forcing yourself not to express something might work in the immediate moment, but there will come a reckoning.
  2. If I feel/express [emotion] it will cause problems in my relationship. Well, yes it might. And? Are you assuming that you’ll express your emotion and that will be that? That’ll be the end of it? If that’s what happens, you already know that things in your relationship are bad, and that’s not usually the case. You’ll express your emotion, the other person will have a response, and you talk. Oh so easy to say! But check to see if your assumption of relationship-ending has any truth to it. (And if it does, how long can you sustain your relationship with this kind of silence? That’s a horrible question to be considering, one I know too well, and I feel for those of us who are or were in that boat.)
  3. If I feel/express [emotion] it will hurt so much I won’t be able to bear it. It might hurt so much, that’s true. And maybe that’ll send you right to your favorite coping mechanisms, food or drugs/alcohol or shopping or bed. But you know what? If you don’t ever feel it, it’s not like it’s going to go away. AND you miss the chance life is giving you to learn something, to grow. Because the odds are pretty good that the feeling is going to come around again and again, and you might as well learn how to get something from it.
  4. I just don’t want to feel [emotion], what good will it do me anyway? Well. What good will it do to feel [emotion]? What good will it do you NOT to feel it? Sure, you avoid feeling an unpleasant feeling, but you also get stuck. You get stuck. You miss a chance to learn and grow, and you keep yourself away from the reality of your real, lived life. Feeling it doesn’t mean you have to hang on to it and dwell on it forever — in fact, it probably ensures that you don’t/won’t, in a way that refusing to feel it means you probably will. I hate that, but I think it’s usually true.
  5. It’s confusing to figure it out, I feel things that don’t go together. This is so true, and it’s a thing to learn: we feel things that don’t make sense together — love and animosity. Closeness and distance. All kinds of apparent contrasts that don’t make sense to our ordinary if-this-then-not-that minds. But what happens if you quit resisting trying to force one or the other? You don’t have to say it out loud. You don’t have to say out loud “Sometimes I just hate my husband” or whatever it is that’s troubling you. No one needs to know the flip side, but if you don’t let yourself know it, you’re pretending, and that don’t make it not true.

One thing meditation is really good for is helping you learn that you are NOT your emotion. You experience your emotion, it’s a thing, there it is, and you can witness it. It probably deserves witnessing, even if it’s just a petty thing you’re ashamed of. It won’t kill you, it’s not the boss of you. You witness it, you observe your response to it, and you become comfortable being near it. It doesn’t stop you ever again from feeling that emotion, but it does give you ease with it, and eventually a degree of mastery and grace in managing it.

This is just a thing that makes such obvious sense to me, it’s hard to understand not understanding it. Like rice cookers. 🙂 Why? I don’t get them, either.

mystical mysteries

Have you had something you might call a mystical experience? Something you’re shy to tell people, and when you do, you have to wave your hands a bit and you couch the story in all kinds of hedges and disclaimers — you’re not a this, it’s not like that — and maybe you don’t even have a framework to explain it. And of course you don’t tell everyone about it, you pick and choose very very carefully.

I’ve had three of those, at least. The most beautiful one happened last summer, mid-July, and I wrote about it here. I just re-read the post and I think it’s lovely, and captures the wonder pretty well.

like this
like this

The one before that happened in New York City, and I’ve mentioned it before. I was crossing a side street and  suddenly everything shifted and I saw time. It was like each person left contrails behind them, or something. I stopped in the middle of the street and just looked around, it was all there behind each person as they walked past me, as they moved down Broadway. My memory is that the air became very still and I didn’t hear anything, but I’m not entirely sure any more. But I do remember standing there for what felt like two or three minutes, seeing time. Wild, and how do you explain that?

But the most important mystical experience I ever had, by FAR, happened in a Quaker meeting in Alexandria, Virginia. I made a glancing reference at this experience a time or two here, but the other day Nancy and I were talking about the power of mystical experiences in our lives and this was certainly a potent one for me.

That was such a special place. The Alexandria Friends Meetinghouse, Woodlawn, is at Fort Belvoir, a proximity that always struck me as funny. Peace right up next to military, how appropriate. The meeting was founded in 1848, and the house stood during the Civil War. (The history of the house can be found here — here’s an excerpt: “On July 21, 1861, Confederate and Union armies clashed at the Battle of Bull Run in nearby Manassas, Virginia. Sounds of the battle punctuated the silence of meeting at Woodlawn, prompting Chalkley Gillingham to write in his journal, “This was the celebrated battle day at Bull Run and the first day of the week. All day at our place we heard the roar of the cannon distinctly. While we sat in Meeting, we heard the noise of war and the roar of battle…..”” Can you imagine?)

The meeting house
The meeting house
the sunny, warm inside
the sunny, warm inside

It was so special, it really was. The Quakers who attended that meeting were warm, generous, funny, and serious people. The thing I loved most about them was that their religious beliefs weren’t in their mouths (and not just because they gather for silent worship) — they were visible in the actions of their lives. They didn’t just put them on when it was time to go to the meeting, and then put them away until the next meeting. They lived their beliefs. It was the only church I’ve ever been part of that felt real and true. I guess it’s appropriate that my most powerful mystical/spiritual experience happened there.

For years I’d been trying to forgive my stepfather. Trying real hard. Bearing-down hard, grunting hard, working at it. Getting nowhere. Writing about it, praying about it, clenching my fists, opening my hands. Getting nowhere. And then one Sunday I was sitting in that room, the one in the picture above. The room settled into silence, and I sat in the gathered silence with everyone, each of us waiting to hear God. There was a huge beam of sunlight, I remember gazing at it, and sitting with no expectation, just waiting. And then I felt a hard SMACK on the back of my head, like someone had slapped me with an open hand, at full strength. My hand flew to the back of my head in shock, and I turned around to see who would’ve done that to me. Quakers are pacifists!

There was no one sitting behind me.

I turned back around, my hand still on the back of my head, and as I struggled to make any sense of what had happened, I suddenly felt a sensation of warm, thick water flowing down all over me, from the top of my head. It was like an egg had been cracked on my head or something, that kind of sensation, but it just kept flowing. And I’m not kidding, I felt all that hurt wash out of me. It just all washed away, and it was simply gone. I think my hand was still on the back of my head.

All that pain, all that struggle to forgive, all the trauma, simply gone. I never talk about him and everything he did, because it’s all gone from me. It washed away in that Quaker meeting. I don’t have the religious language to talk about it, I don’t have a framework that explains it, I’ll fumble and say something like God met me there and took me where I was trying so hard to go, but that sounds false to me because I don’t talk like that, I don’t have that kind of belief structure. But I believe it anyway, even though I don’t have a supporting framework for it.

When the meeting ended, I remember standing up and looking at everyone and wondering if they could see how different I was. I went to the potluck afterwards and wondered how I looked, surely they could all see! But no one seemed to spot what felt like an extraordinary shift. I imagined that my eyes looked different, all filled with light. When I gathered my kids and we drove home, an hour away, I sat in the car filled with wonder and couldn’t tell anyone what had happened because I didn’t know how.

I still don’t, really, even though I just did. What happened to me? I know it by its effect: I forgave. I feel shy putting that first-person pronoun there, so squarely at the beginning. “I” forgave? What was the “I” doing the forgiving? Or maybe forgiveness was given to me? That feels truer, but pale compared to what the experience and consequences have been. If you knew me before, and knew how truly devastating that poison was, how terrible the weight of what I had to forgive, you’d be in as much awe as I continue to be in. That happened in 1989 and I’ve never felt even a featherweight touch of any of that old stuff.

As the years pass, and now the decades, the power of that experience is every bit as fresh. The mysterious wonder of the absolute GONE-ness of all that pain, as completely awe-inspiring 27 years later. I’ve never gotten used to it as just a thing. My shyness to tell the story has nothing to do with what happened, at all — it’s not a question of whether I’ll be believed (totally irrelevant to me), it’s just hard to tell a story when the center of it is mystery.

Have you had a mystical or spiritual experience that had this kind of long-lasting power? I’d love to hear about it, though I doubt you’d want to share it in a public blog comment. But if we know each other and you feel like sharing, just know that I’ve had my own experience and I am open and filled with wonder.

xoxoxox

the good life

A few days ago I watched Hector and the Search for Happiness, a movie starring Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, and with Christopher Plummer and Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgard and Toni Collette.

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A great bunch of actors! It didn’t get the highest of ratings, and frankly I was surprised by how much I loved it. It’s a journey story; Simon Pegg is a psychiatrist with a tidy, satisfactory life, and he chucks it all to travel around the world to discover what makes people happy. (yawn, I thought.) Then near the end, there’s a brain scan (oh that always irritates me, I’m a neuroskeptic), and when Pegg is holding the tremendous array of thoughts that he has learned constitute his happiness, his entire brain lights up — “the Northern Lights,” says the scientist. So I dearly love that, because I believe it’s true. Happiness comprises everything, all the feelings, even the bleak ones.

all kinds of colors in there
all kinds of colors in there

At one point the main character asks someone, “You’ve been through so much, how are you so happy?” And she (or he, can’t remember now) says, “I’m so happy because I’ve been through so much.” And at that point I jumped up out of my chair with tears in my eyes and said too loudly, “YES. Yes-yes-yes. Yes. That’s true.” Because it is. (I do this often and am glad I generally live alone. 😉 )

I’ve known a few people who grew up with just about as perfect a life as one could have in real life. One home for 18 years, thoughtful and educated parents, plenty of love, a lot of friends, success in school, off to college with no worries, college years were great, launch into life, the world on a string. Tiger by the tail. Take your pick of cliches. I’ve actually known people, real people, who had that life. Security, safety, love, peace. No traumas of any kind. No unexpected losses — maybe a grandparent here or there, but not ever unexpectedly or tragically.

It’s just those specific people I know, but boy are they unhappy adults. They’re lost. They’re empty. Their lives feel meaningless to them. (And again: maybe you know people from that life who are joyous adults with meaningful lives! I just don’t know them.) (Oh, wait, now I can think of a couple of them who got married to each other and are very very happy adults, with happy children.)

So let me not make an absolute claim here, but a general one. A simply easy life is not a happy one. A simply easy life is not a meaningful one. I am not saying that happiness comes from pain and trauma necessarily, but I believe it comes from the effort to deal with it. From the knowledge of having had it and gotten somewhere else, from the understandings you find in the process, and from what you learn about yourself and the world along the way. And I’m not saying that simple and easy times aren’t happy, because they sure can be! But they are happy in the context of the rest. I want to resist that easy thing people say, “without the dark you can’t know the light,” but something is true in it. Jung said, “The word happiness would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness,” and I guess that’s right but those sayings seem facile to me, a toss-off, even if there is something true in them. Maybe they just trouble me because of the way people say them, an unconsidered bit of bumper-sticker wisdom said without much thought.

Around this time last year I wrote about happiness — a similar idea I had then, because I believe this so deeply. Happiness is both a momentary state and a deeper, complex experience. I feel happy when I look at Oliver or Ilan; that rush of feeling that overcomes me is a mixture of love and joy, definitely. My happiness where they and my children are concerned is vast, and includes their places in our family, their connections to their sweet mamas, my daughters, and Oliver’s arrival in the wake of our loss of Gracie. So that’s complex, definitely, but my feeling when I see them or think about them is simple happiness. But my own personal happiness, the center of me, my deepest experience, contains EVERYTHING. It contains my ability to feel everything that happens to me, light and dark. (Strangely, that’s true. My ability to feel heartache makes me happy. I’m happy I can feel that terrible feeling because it’s true and human.) It contains having survived the things I have survived. It contains memories of loss and sorrow. My happiness holds all of those things at the same time, and without any one of them my happiness would definitely be less rich, less meaningful to me.

My happiness also depends on the scary will to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable to you, to random strangers who might hurt me here or elsewhere, to people in my life, to possibilities. Like everyone else, I’ve trusted people I shouldn’t have trusted and been very hurt by them, but my happiness depends on being open again anyway.

buttermilk blueberry cake
buttermilk blueberry cake

I’m so happy because I’ve been through so much. Today I’m happy because I’m taking this yummy cake — which was easy to make early this morning because I’m still jet lagged, so I’m in bed super early and up super early — over to my dear friend Cindy’s house for breakfast. Today I’m happy because I will see Katie and Trey and Oliver later today, and I haven’t seen that sweet little fella since his birthday. Today I’m happy because my health is good and I can do anything I feel like doing without having to think twice, or cater to a hurting body part. Today I’m happy because I have dear friends. Today I’m happy because my family is happy and healthy. Today I’m happy because my hair looks OK today. 🙂 Big stuff and small stuff, yo. And today I’m happy because my heart has been tenderized and I can hold very tenderly, with understanding, friends whose lives are being hit with frightening illness. Today I’m happy because of the plans I have — making a triple berry cake for friends tomorrow, going to the UP in July, seeing Ilan and Marnie and Tom in June, something secret that’s happening next Wednesday, lots of great books in my Kindle that I’m dying to read — and because I rediscovered this beautiful poem, which I love because it understands the possibility of beauty out of suffering.

RUBBING — Stephen Dunn

I once saw a painter smear black paint
on a bad blue sky,
then rub it in until that lie of hers

was gone. I’ve seen men polish cars
so hard they’ve given off light.
As a child I kept a stone in my pocket,

thumb and forefinger in collusion
with water and wind,
caressing it day and night.

i’ve begun a few things with an eraser,
waited for frictions spark.
I’ve learned that sometimes severe

can lead to truer, even true.
But few things human can stand
to be rubbed for long—I know this

and can’t stop. If beauty comes
it comes startled, hiding scars,
out of what barely can be endured.

xoxoxo Happy Sunday, y’all.

forgiveness, #1048

it is about being able to open your hand
it is about being able to open your hand

This is a topic I return to again and again because it holds me back, my inability to forgive, and I come at it from so many directions. I have had breathtaking moments in my life in which it felt like forgiveness was bestowed upon me from outside myself — I was washed clean of the hurt and simply forgave, and it was all over. And in fact it was all over; the instance I’m thinking about happened in 1991(-ish) and I haven’t felt even a twinge of that hurt ever since. But it kind of came from outside me and I don’t know how to make that happen again. Like everyone in the world, I have other people I need to forgive and importantly, I have things in myself I need to forgive.

So my ears are always open to discussions of forgiveness, as I’m always looking for thoughts or approaches or intentions or methods or tricks or keys or someone else’s way that worked, because the ways I have tried have only gotten me so far.

I read this once and it moved me greatly:

FORGIVENESS is a heartache and difficult to achieve because strangely, it not only refuses to eliminate the original wound, but actually draws us closer to its source. To approach forgiveness is to close in on the nature of the hurt itself, the only remedy being, as we approach its raw center, to reimagine our relation to it.

It may be that the part of us that was struck and hurt can never forgive, and that strangely, forgiveness never arises from the part of us that was actually wounded. The wounded self may be the part of us incapable of forgetting, and perhaps, not actually meant to forget, as if, like the foundational dynamics of the physiological immune system our psychological defenses must remember and organize against any future attacks – after all, the identity of the one who must forgive is actually founded on the very fact of having being wounded. [yes.]

Stranger still, it is that wounded, branded, un-forgetting part of us that eventually makes forgiveness an act of compassion rather than one of simple forgetting. To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt, to mature and bring to fruition an identity that can put its arm, not only around the afflicted one within but also around the memories seared within us by the original blow and through a kind of psychological virtuosity, extend our understanding to one who first delivered it.

Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life, a beautiful way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves; an admittance that if forgiveness comes through understanding, and if understanding is just a matter of time and application then we might as well begin forgiving right at the beginning of any drama rather than put ourselves through the full cycle of festering, incapacitation, reluctant healing and eventual blessing.

To forgive is to put oneself in a larger gravitational field of experience than the one that first seem to hurt us. We re-imagine ourselves in the light of our maturity and we re-imagine the past in the light of our new identity, we allow ourselves to be gifted by a story larger than the story that first hurt us and left us bereft.

At the end of life, the wish to be forgiven is ultimately the chief desire of almost every human being. In refusing to wait; in extending forgiveness to others now, we begin the long journey of becoming the person who will be large enough, able enough and generous enough to receive, at the very end, that absolution ourselves.
‘FORGIVENESS’
in “CONSOLATIONS:
The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.”
© David Whyte and Many Rivers Press 2015
Now Available http://davidwhyte.stores.yahoo.net/newbook.html

That gave me something for a long time, a way to think about forgiveness, and yet I find myself still struggling with it. It isn’t as if I’m incapable of forgiveness, at all; I do forgive, and very easily if I’m asked. If I’m harmed in some way and the person acknowledges and apologizes, it’s simply gone out of my heart and memory. In fact, I’d offer an example right now if I could, but they’re all gone. And I can forgive a number of hurts from someone, slights, no problem, though that does accumulate and I begin to feel a callous. Where my own behavior and actions are concerned, I’ve learned to forgive myself a little more easily, to let those slights go, but I cling so hard to some mistakes and need and want to move through and past them.

Then I read something while we were on vacation, and I really wish I could remember the source so I could cite it for credit, and to give you the option of reading it more fully. The point of it was that in order to forgive, you have to deal with your feelings of hurt. You can’t move anywhere until you have actually dealt with your feelings of hurt. And that seemed like an important key — where forgiving others is concerned, quite clearly. I think we brick up the hurt and put the responsibility for fixing it on the one who hurt us. IF/WHEN they own up to it and ask for forgiveness, THEN I will feel better. Then it will all be over. And maybe sometimes it is, maybe sometimes it works that way, but I think feeling better, forgiveness, is a personal inside job. And I think it might center on doing that work yourself of looking at and feeling and dealing with the hurt all on your own.

But I don’t know. I wish there was a magic spell, an incantation, a potion, a trick, because hanging on to those old hurts from the past doesn’t do a damn thing but poison the one holding on. It’s so unfair, that hurt! Yes. Life is unfair, it is. But I was not doing anything! But I was innocent! Yes. Life is unfair. It is. And we ourselves are unfair to others, to ourselves, to the situation, and we ourselves require forgiveness from others, and from ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time — always, I suppose — and especially since I read that while I was in China. But then last night I woke up shouting my son’s name, from a deeply vivid dream that I was talking to him, and lay there for a couple of hours just crying and thinking about forgiveness, so here I am.

xoxoxox

the question is wisdom, the answer is complexity

In 2011 I read a great book called Difficult Conversations: How to Talk About What Matters Most. Difficult conversations are so hard for me, and I found the book quite useful. The real value of the book, though, spread so far beyond difficult conversations, and it all came from one little word: AND.

One point made in the book is that when you say “….., but ….” you essentially negate the first part. Saying, “…., and ….” allows space for both to be true. Because with very rare exception, there is truth in both.

  • “Yes, you do the shopping but you only do it when I ask.”
  • “Yes, you do the shopping and you only do it when I ask.”

The first makes the point in an oppositional way, the second in an acknowledging way. If someone said the first to you, wouldn’t you get a little riled up? My response might even include a bad word that starts with the letter F.

Escher gets at the complexity of 'and.'
Escher gets at the complexity of ‘and.’

And so I made a very conscious effort to use and instead of but, and I never came to an instance in which I really could only use but. ‘And’ was always appropriate. This fit easily into my understanding of the complexity of the world, leading me to a simple phrase for a big idea: It’s an ‘and’ world. I write about this over and over, and I can’t track down the original post I wrote in 2009 or 2010, so here’s one I wrote called ‘plucking out the story‘ that includes a good real-life example. It’s an ‘and’ world, y’all. It is. And that is a bigger issue than you think.

The problem comes in when we think or feel conflicting truths. Our minds are uneasy with conflicting truths, with cognitive dissonance, and we’re pulled to resolve the conflict. One of my favorite cognitive dissonance experiments had research participants in the US eating crickets, for which they were paid either $1 or $20, by random assignment. Afterwards they were asked why they ate the crickets. The people who received $20 said they did it for the money. The people who received $1 said they did it because they like crickets. Because they surely did not really like crickets, but they’d received so little money to do it — both true — so they resolved that conflict by telling themselves the story that they liked crickets. Isn’t that fascinating?

And then when you add in a should, it becomes even more complex. You have two conflicting feelings, and one comes with but I shouldn’t feel that way, or how could I feel that way! and so you rush to negate or ignore the “bad” one, and you certainly don’t admit it out loud. But both are true! You act on the better one, and you feel it fully, AND the other is also true. They both are true. BOTH. ARE. TRUE.

A made-up example: Let’s say you have a very dear friend in trouble and you want to help her, you truly do, because you love her. She needs help and you can provide the help, you have the knowledge or skill or experience. The thing is, she’s a pain in the ass. She’s ungrateful. She’ll try a little and then go right back to complaining about the very thing you’re helping her with. I’ll bet everyone has had that experience. So you feel super annoyed and irritated with her, and frustrated. Oh, but I shouldn’t be annoyed, I know she’s doing the best she can. And maybe there’s something that really is in her way, some very real roadblock, so you also think, God, what a jerk I am to feel this way! What is wrong with me?! So what do you do? You block those “bad” feelings. You suppress them and try not even to acknowledge them in your own mind.

But both are true! Because both are true. At the very same time. Because you are complex, situations are complex, the world is complex. You get to choose which one you act on, but both feelings are true and that is fine. In fact, if you need this point made, the fact that you are acting on the ‘better’ feeling and keeping the other to yourself—while you still feel it—isn’t that a good thing? It is!

One thing I have learned, though, is that talking about both sets of feelings upsets people. I don’t mean the person you’re helping, I just mean other people. So you’ve been helping your friend, feeling both kinds of feelings, and when you talk to another very good friend and tell the fullness of your experience, your very good friend will shut you down. She will focus on the “bad” feeling and discount it for you, disagree with it, explain it away, tell you you’re wrong. And maybe even judge you about it, though she’ll probably be too polite to tell you.

IT’S AN AND WORLD. You feel what you feel, and whatever you feel is absolutely fine. You choose which feelings you express (and when, and to whom), and you choose which actions to take in response. Social norms are so very strong, you may even shut down feelings you “shouldn’t” feel so quickly you are scarcely aware of them. I’ve come to believe that it is a sign of deep wisdom to be able to acknowledge the world’s complexity and simply let it be. In this feeling example, to resist pushing down the “bad” feeling and allowing it also to be true. You help, you want to help, you choose to help, you love your friend, and you feel frustrated with her even though she has this terrible roadblock.

I don’t have very many friends I can share the complexity of life with, but those few I do have provide my safe space, my true space, and the space where I feel it easiest to be who I am, in all my own complexity. I get to be my authentic, full self. There I feel deeply understood . . . because those friends know that BOTH sets are true, that the love and “good” is also just as true, that those are the ones I act on because I mean them with all my heart. It’s just that I also feel the other, as people do.

Wow. You really can find ANYTHING on the Internet.
Wow. You really can find ANYTHING on the Internet.

And so I share this with you, to try to help you remember that the world is complex, you are complex, your thoughts and feelings are complex, and when you think or feel contradictory things (when, not if, because you do!), it’s fine. Feel them both. Think them both. Breathe and allow yourself to be open, to learn how to hold them both at the same time without rushing to close one door. It’s good practice for all the other ways the world is contradictory.

(It has so become my habit to talk and think like this—which isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes slip—that I have developed funny automatic sentence constructions. SO many of my sentences begin with “and,” so many begin with “and so” [which my daughter Katie pointed out to me], and also “and though,” which kind of is a ‘but’ construction but it brings the ‘and’ in, which I believe also reflects the truth of the world because it allows the essential tension between conflicting truths to be present.)

And so. Allow complexity. Acknowledge complexity. Hell, see complexity. Black and white categorical thinking is nice and easy (X is good. Y is bad. End of story, and I am absolutely certain about that…), but it isn’t real. It isn’t true. Hitler and the Holocaust were evil; Pol Pot was evil; but otherwise, there are so few things that are just one thing that the default toward complexity will keep you closer to the truth of the world.

And that’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.

so amazed I want to fly

flowering teaA couple of days ago I wrote about this stunning insight I had that probably sounds dumb to anyone else, the way insights are. Yeah, I knew that all along about you, obvious. And? But an insight changes everything, so it’s not just the mustard seed of the thing itself, it’s the way the world changes as a result. That insight just keeps unfolding, like flowering tea. It does feel like a flower is blooming inside me and it just keeps blooming.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that we are born with a temperament, we’re born who we are. I used to think differently, that we’re born kind of a blob and we become who we are, but that’s just not right. And fundamentally, we are who we are throughout our lives. I look at sweet little Oliver, such a happy, even-keeled boy, curious and self-contained, busy and a little cautious and laughing so easily. He was born that way, it’s who he is. I imagine it’ll ebb and flow as life happens to him but it’s fundamentally who he is, and he’ll return to that even if he wobbles. This is supported by a body of research; people who are in devastating accidents and become paralyzed and people who win the lottery have an immediate response, becoming devastated or overjoyed, but with time they return to whatever level of happiness they had before. So temperamentally happy people will adjust to paralysis and find their way back to themselves, to their ordinary happiness. A curmudgeon will adjust to having money and after the initial thrill, will return to being a curmudgeon. We are who we are, and we are born with ourselves. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s a fated full-on deterministic thing, but it’s a temperament, and I do believe that. I don’t know why I knew and believed this about everyone else and just didn’t see it about myself. Maybe, like others who hear about my younger life, I was just blinded by the circumstances.

So more unfolding in two tectonic directions:

My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
  • I never could really understand why my mother hated me as much as she did. I knew that I ruined her life, she said that over and over. And I can even get that; she ran away from home just before she turned 17 and married my dad, who was 18 and also running away from home, and she probably imagined she was now going to have the life she wanted…..and BAM. Pregnant. So that part I could get. I understood what she meant when she said I ruined her life. But she hated me, viciously and frighteningly. I always thought, but I was a sweet little kid…. and that left me so confused. But that’s exactly why! How obvious! She hated me and I had the nerve to be happy anyway. She would be so cruel and vicious it would take your breath away, and then a little later I’d be happy about some little something. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, I could still be happy. I’d still dance around the coffee table. Each time I was happy, it must have made her just double down, it must have been so galling, so enraging. I totally get that! Not from my own experience, but as a dynamic. I think it’s very common — like someone we think is unworthy, maybe a bad writer, wins a prize for writing, and they’re a much worse writer than you! Much worse! So you hate their writing and them even more. The world is unfair, why do they get the rewards? I think it’s that dynamic.

So she hated me because no matter what she did, I could still be happy. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to understand that, and her. She is a psychopath, but that’s just a diagnosis. I always said she was a black box, completely impossible to understand, but it was just a small, mean thing all along. After 57 years, I finally understand her. Unlike with my dad’s suicide, I never thought it was my fault she hated me, because I didn’t choose to be born, but it was so bewildering, and finally I have an answer.

  • And the other thing — gosh, how could I not have seen this before? — relates to an explanation I always gave for my survival. “It was just a failure of imagination,” I’d always say with a wry smile. Why didn’t I become a prostitute as a way to get money? Why didn’t I turn to drugs or alcohol to escape? “Failure of imagination. All I could think of was to find some place to do my homework and sleep and then go to school the next day. Failure of imagination.” One thing I did, and I’d tell this story, was to go to the disco in our small town (this was the late 70s) when it was bitterly cold, or when I was filled with despair. I’d take my one dress and change in the bathroom, and then go out on the floor and dance and dance, spinning around until I got out of myself and into a kind of bliss. Hours would pass and I’d be warm, and I’d be out of my real life. But that wasn’t a failure of imagination, or a “gee I’m so clever” tactic, I was just being myself. That’s all. No more, no less, no failure, no admiration. I was just being myself, that’s all. I am so grateful that I was born like that.

You cannot imagine how earthshaking this is — and I’m not being dramatic, that’s not hyperbole. The ground has shaken and I see myself there, I understand myself then, my life then, my mother, my father, my family. Finally, I understand. Finally. I understand. I was there all along. Do you remember these little handheld games?

dexterity
these are called dexterity games, for some reason

You had to roll it, tilt it, try to get ALL the little BBs into the small holes. Aaah, you’d get 2 in, but when you’re trying to get the 3rd in the others roll out! So frustrating for a little kid! But this is how my early life is now. My mother is in her little hole. My father is in his. I am in mine. And the game is done — and I win. 🙂

one mystery solved!

It’s not often you get to solve a decades-long mystery if your name isn’t Nancy Drew and there’s not an Old Clock or a Hidden Staircase nearby. The mystery related to music from my teenage years — The Eagles, Elton John, Linda Rondstadt, Chicago, various disco songs, Loggins & Messina, John Denver. When I hear any of that music my heart soars and I feel SO happy. So, big deal? Big news from the Department of DUH.

But the mystery is that my teenage years were pure hell. I didn’t have a home. Terrible things were happening to me. Truly terrible. So why would the music that is cellularly associated with that period make me feel happy? Weird, right? It’s not like the music was playing while my chums and I rode in her convertible to the Friday night football game to meet Ned and the boys. Not like that at all. This has puzzled me for decades, it really has.

There’s a good-sized box of old albums of mine, including one album I saved up to buy when I was 10. It was a collection of classical music, and it was advertised on television. So I saved and saved and saved and saved and got my dad to buy it for me. Mother ridiculed and belittled me for it and accused me of just wanting to be different, but I really did love the music. I still have that album. It’s 47 years old. When I was in high school, I remember storing the records in my locker during the school year, and in the summer I’d hide them wherever I worked, since I didn’t have a place to live. For a short period I had a car to live in, so I kept them in the floorboard, alongside a chess set my dad bought me in Mexico when I was little. Those were my worldly belongings, along with some clothes. Somewhere along the way I lost the chess set. I didn’t get to listen to my records through my teenage years, no stereo, but of course the songs were playing everywhere so I heard them.

not this bad, but not a whole lot better
not this bad, but not a whole lot better

I haven’t had a turntable in . . . no idea. No idea how long it’s been. My daughter Katie is our family’s repository of all things family, and she’s been storing the box for me for longer than I can imagine. She asked if I wanted my records, now that I have space of my own, and I said yes, and spent a lot of time looking through them, remembering. And then I bought a really cheap stereo with a turntable. Really, it’s just a step up from a Fisher Price record player. It has a built-in CASSETTE PLAYER and an AM radio. It seemed to come from somewhere in China. I don’t care; for me, it wasn’t about having a high-class listening experience — after all, the records are ancient and have been through a lot. For me it was just about listening to my records a couple more times.

just a few -- I have a LOT of Eagles
just a few — I have a LOT of Eagles

So I pulled out Hotel California, one of my very favorite old albums. We used to listen to music so differently, remember? We’d start at the beginning and listen to a whole side, and then the other. Songs in order, and in whole. We used to read the liner notes. So I set up my little stereo on a low table in my yoga room and spread out some albums all around me, and placed the needle at the beginning of Side A. Scratch scratch MUSIC! And then it hit me.

Even in those hard years, I was me. There was me in there, and somehow, I have no idea how, I felt joy. I felt my joy, the way I do. I was the person who gets really excited about things, notices things, feels happiness with small things. There was me in there, dreaming of someday. Dreaming of having a place to live, dreaming of finishing high school and making my way to Austin where I would finally begin life and get away from my family completely. I was in there, living in my head, dancing inside. The things were happening to me, and around me, and too much of my time was spent trying to get through to the next day, but *I* was not that. I was still 14, 15, 16, 17, loving those songs just like everyone else, even though my life wasn’t like everyone else’s. I’ve always been here as me.

this exactly -- except the paint on mine was faded and not shiny, and the car was in bad shape. this one is kept up.
this exactly — except the paint on mine was faded and not shiny, and the car was in bad shape. this one is kept up.

In October 1976, I’d made my escape plan (I had an old car at the time, a ’62 Nash Rambler, dusty pale green). Don’t laugh — I was going to drive from Wichita Falls to San Antonio, find a convent and bang on the door and ask them for sanctuary. That was really my plan. I didn’t have plans beyond that, and I had no idea where a convent might be, but San Antonio is full of Catholics so I figured I’d find one. For some unknown-to-me-now reason I decided to tell the guidance counselor at school that I was moving the next day and I told her what my stepfather did to me as an explanation for my move. Guidance counselors weren’t trained very well back then, so she called my mother. Later that day Mother had me picked up and placed in a mental hospital and then no one could ever believe me again. “You know, Lori is crazy, you can’t believe a word she says,” eye roll.

Back then the stay was 3 months, which I didn’t mind, frankly. A warm bed, a hot shower, three meals, pretty good. I have a lot of stories from that time. I spent my 17th birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s there. She took me out for a day on Thanksgiving and took me to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — you can’t make this shit up! If I read that in a client’s novel I’d cross it out and say “COME ON.” But I remember what I wore, how it felt to be there. ANYWAY. So while I was in there, my stepfather took my car and sold it. On the day I was released, I remember this so so well, I walked out the front door of the hospital to nothing. I had nowhere to go. No car. Nobody. The clothes on my back, and a few in a paper sack, but no coat. (Luckily, my records were still in my locker, and thank heavens for that.) There was snow on the ground, as there is in far north Texas in January, on the plains. I was standing there trying to figure out what to do, and then a car drove past with the radio playing so loud I could hear the song: New Kid in Town. The Eagles. And I smiled. I smiled because I loved the song, I loved the Eagles, and I kind of felt like a new kid in town after three months of a bed and regular meals. I walked down the steps, down the walkway to the street, and turned right. I don’t remember where I went or where I found to sleep that night, but I remember that moment, and that song, and I remember smiling — me, it was about me, not my circumstance.

This is such an extraordinary bit of understanding for me, because it’s about so much more than the music. It’s about getting whacked in the head with the realization that I WAS THERE ALL ALONG, even then. It was always me inside, I was not my circumstance. Lori Dawn was in there, singing and dancing and dreaming. I never realized that until now, as strange as that sounds.

I always did want to be Nancy Drew, and I was always so jealous of the way mysteries always seemed to happen around her, and never around me. But I guess this one did. To me this isn’t a sad post, a sad story at all! This is a joyous one, a gift to myself. A 57 years old gift of light.

5. Make Room for “Fruitful Monotony”

russellThis is topic #5 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honest relationships, #2 was about experiencing what is actually happening, #3 was about being patient and loving the questions, #4 was about the moral weight of the stories we tell, and this one is about the detrimental effect of passive entertainment on happiness.

As always, I begin with the relevant excerpt from the Brain Pickings post:

“In a chapter titled ‘Boredom and Excitement,’ Russell teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how central it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence, he writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

[…]

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense.

Many decades before our present concerns about screen time, he urges parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself.” He writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness… A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.


The more I engage in this project, the more curious I become about Maria Popova, creator of Brain Pickings — and not just because of the 16 choices she made, but also of how she chose to summarize each one. “Make room for fruitful monotony” is taken directly from Russell’s words; the central comparison he thinks about is this:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs, and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

So he’s saying to make room for the kind of boredom that comes when you don’t take drugs? My understanding, after reading the whole chapter (included at the bottom of this post if you want to read it — and it’s often quite funny!), is that his real concern is the stultifying kind of boredom. In this chapter, Russell thinks through the importance of not filling every moment with passive entertainment. If you spend too much of your time in that kind of stultifying boredom, you lose something essential. He thinks it’s especially important for children, and I agree.

But no matter how old we are, don’t we all talk about wanting to put down our phones, get offline, turn off the television? I think he would be appalled by the way we’re now so completely tethered to our electronic devices, and I doubt too many of us would disagree. Setting aside the way we are left disconnected from other human beings, and setting aside the health effects of all the sitting and absorbing passive entertainment, his concern is that it leads to unhappiness. And I think it does too — he’s right, even if it’s sometimes hard to step away from the electronic world. In the chapter he says that we are so afraid of boredom that we pursue excitement relentlessly, and that “certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony.” Poetry, art, creation, insight, we distract ourselves away from the quiet monotony that gives rise to these possibilities. Russell sees this outcome:

“…a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

YES. Little men. He makes a frequent connection to the earth, to nature, as a source of experiences that energize and create happiness, and again I think he’s right. It’s kind of like we’re setting ourselves up to become smaller and smaller and smaller: we stare at screens inside our homes, absorbing ‘entertainment’ created by other people, and often uncritically. We become mole people. For myself, when I’ve done that too long — easy to do, since my work is on the computer and I work most waking minutes — I end up feeling hollow and soul-empty. Time whizzes past and it’s gone and I don’t even remember how I spent it. In the very rare time I have a break from work and just have a day to spend however I wish, I get so much more bang for my buck by being in silence and away from electronics. The hours are so slow and thick, and my pleasure in spending them is palpable. I end the day with a very deep satisfaction and happiness, always.

You know how when you’re thinking about something, you start seeing it in a variety of places? I’m reading Per Petterson’s stunning Out Stealing Horses and came across this passage. His elderly protagonist, Trond, had just moved to an isolated cabin in the wilderness:

“I did not bring a television set out here with me, and I regret it sometimes when the evenings get long, but my idea was that living alone you can soon get stuck to those flickering images and to the chair you will sit on far into the night, and then time merely passes as you let others do the moving. I do not want that. I will keep myself company.”

(I’m sure I’ll write about this book, it’s so beautiful and a meditation on the past and trauma.) Anyway, I have more things I want to do than time to do them (c’mon lottery!!), but I do slip into a rut of electronic background distraction now and then. It happens much less often since I undertook my anti-flailing project 18 months ago and accidentally started doing only one thing at a time, but I can still slip into the multitasking habit if I’m not paying attention and what pulls me out of it is the awareness of feeling bad — ah! No wonder!

How often are you at home without the television going? Without music playing? With your phone and computer put away? How often are you in silence? NEVER? Is that how often? I wonder what would happen if you did that for one hour. Does the idea make you nervous? I suspect it makes many people nervous, and for a similar reason that meditation makes people nervous — having to come face to face with yourself in a sustained way, OY.

To me, this one feels like a real resolution, like a deepening understanding of something I’ve been working with already. So to date, my understanding of the five ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about is:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships.
  2. Experience what is actually happening.
  3. Be patient, and live and love the questions.
  4. The stories you choose to tell have great moral weight.
  5. Be alone with yourself, without distraction.

And now I’m off to topic #6, “Refuse to play the perfection game” by the most excellent Ursula K. Le Guin, whose thoughts on this issue are not just inspirational, they’re quite moving.

OH! And by the way, I found the whole text of the Russell book online here, and in case you want to read the chapter yourself, you’ll find it below:

Continue reading “5. Make Room for “Fruitful Monotony””

the essential loneliness

Loneliness is not something I feel very often; in fact, I don’t think I’ve felt true loneliness since the very early 1980s, since I had my first child. I kind of think that’s true. To me, “lonely” equals “being all alone in the world.” I’ve been alone, I’ve been depressed, I’ve been sad, I’ve been lonesome for someone, I’ve been all those things, but I’ve never felt lonely since Katie was born. Since I moved to Austin and started living alone for the very first time since I was in high school, and learned how to do that — and a pleasure it is, living alone — I’ve found that the feeling of loneliness isn’t part of my experience, even as I believe that the most essential human condition is loneliness. I guess I want to distinguish between a feeling of loneliness and the existential condition of loneliness.

lonelinessMost people, I think, conceive of loneliness as something that is fixed by having a partner of some kind. Feeling lonely can be remedied, at least a bit, by hanging out with other people, by getting out of your isolation.

Although if you think about it, the most painful loneliness can happen when you have a partner and something isn’t working. When you shouldn’t be lonely — he or she is right there, and you have someone to do things with — and yet you feel unknown or unseen or misunderstood by that person, leaving you lonelier than if you were truly by yourself. I have felt that way. The loneliest I’ve ever been in my life was in my first marriage. He was gone for six years, but even when he was there, he almost never spoke to or engaged with me. I once told him that I knew he could be affectionate because I’d seen him pet the dog, a statement that broke my heart to say and feel. But even more, my loneliness with him came from the enormous gulf between who we were as people. Even if he lived with us, even if he was present, even if he spoke to me, our differences were so great that we never knew or understood each other. Sylvia Plath said this, and it’s like she wrote it for me in that marriage: “I had been alone more than I could have been had I gone by myself.”

But even partners who are perfect for us don’t (and can’t) eliminate all our loneliness. I think it’s an essential human longing to be known, to be understood, to be seen and accepted for who we are, and that deep longing leads us to other people. But no one, not one person in the whole world, can really do that. People can get closer to it or farther away, but no one in the world can know us perfectly, understand us fully and always, see us in all our truth and complexity, and accept us no matter what. We can’t even really do those things with and for ourselves, you know?

So again, I’m not talking about the feeling of lonely, about the experience of being lonely — whether that’s described as a terrible, sad thing or as the ground of creation; I’m talking instead about the fact that we exist all alone, inside a bag of bones, and that’s one of the essential truths of existence. We can walk alongside someone we love, who loves us, and we are still alone inside ourselves. The world we are experiencing isn’t the same one being experienced by the other person, and sometimes that can jump up and shock us, but the fact is, it’s always there.

  • “
Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.” Janet Fitch, White Oleander
  • “God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of “parties” with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.” ~Sylvia Plath, Journals
  • “My name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know.” ~David Foster Wallace
  • “They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
    Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
    I have it in me so much nearer home
    To scare myself with my own desert places.” ~Robert Frost
  • “No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone.” ~Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
  • “We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.” ~Rudyard Kipling
  • “[A]t bottom, and just in the deepest and most important things, we are unutterably alone, and for one person to be able to advise or even help another, a lot must happen, a lot must go well, a whole constellation of things must come right in order once to succeed.” ~Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
  • “Human beings, in point of fact, are lonely by nature, and one should feel sorry for them and love them and mourn with them. It is certain that people would understand one another better and love one another more if they would admit to one another how lonely they were, how sad they were in their tormented, anxious longings and feeble hopes.” ~Halldór Laxness
  • “In spite of language, in spite of intelligence and intuition and sympathy, one can never really communicate anything to anybody. The essential substance of every thought and feeling remains incommunicable, locked up in the impenetrable strong-room of the individual soul and body. Our life is a sentence of perpetual solitary confinement.” ~Aldous Huxley

That last one, the Huxley, it gets most closely at what I’m talking about, although the David Foster Wallace line did too, with the addition of that extraordinary image, the one-by-one box of bone.

We are born entirely alone, although if we’re lucky there are people who will take care of us until we can take care of ourselves. We live alongside people our whole lives, and some know us to varying degrees, some love us to varying degrees, but no one knows us perfectly. We die all by ourselves, though if we’re lucky there are people who love us nearby — but they can’t do the dying with us.

Does this feel sad to you? I can’t be sure whether I think it’s sad; I think it just is, and so in some way it’s outside valence or judgement. I find it very poignant, for sure, because we are all moving around in our one-by-one boxes of bone, longing to be seen and known by other boxes of bone who are also longing to be seen and known by us, and we can only get so close to that longing. I think recognizing this, deeply understanding it, can surely help us find compassion for each other. Some people get all loud and boisterous in their attempt to quell their loneliness, some get quiet and withdrawn, some flail in anger, some simply watch, but we’re all trying to be seen and known and understood. We all share that in common, so I guess that too is the essential condition of living. Essential loneliness and longing.

Bless our hearts.

2. Resist Absentminded Busyness

eitherorThis is topic #2 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honorable (honest) relationships, and this one is about resisting absentminded busyness, taking a close read of a chapter from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or called “THE UNHAPPIEST ONE” (that link provides the chapter in pdf, should you want to read it; it’s 9.5 pages, 1.5 spaced.) If you want to learn more about Kierkegaard, this is a good starting point.

Let me start by providing the blurb presented on the Brain Pickings post. She writes:

“In a latter chapter, titled ‘The Unhappiest Man,’ he considers how we grow unhappy by fleeing from presence and busying ourselves with the constant pursuit of some as-yet unattained external goal:

The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.

[…]

The unhappy one is absent… It is only the person who is present to himself that is happy.

My first thought, when I saw the ‘resolution’ on the Brain Pickings post, was that this had great relevance to today’s eternally online world. How many people (including me!) talk about taking digital sabbaticals; how many talk about the fracturing of attention we experience now, with such constant competition for our eyes and ears, the way it keeps us from being present. Absentminded busyness, exactly! Of course Kierkegaard’s concern was much deeper, as I knew it necessarily would be, and not just because he was writing in the pre-electronic world. After closely reading and re-reading the chapter, I’m so curious about why this was formulated in terms of resisting absentminded busyness, because it’s a much larger subject than that. I would never have summarized it in that way.

To me, the chapter was much more about embracing reality in a mindful way. One thing that always troubled me about the way I understood mindfulness — being present in the moment — was the problem of the impossibility of catching the present, the impossibility and unreality of the eternal present. I guess one is eternally present when one is dead and time is no longer at play. But for the living, there! Ah, it’s past. There! Future becomes present becomes past in a breath. To be present in a moment includes the coming moment, the next breath, and includes the breath just exhaled, the past. And, like Faulkner, I believe the past isn’t really the past, it all exists in my cells and bones necessarily, and so therefore the past exists in my present moment. Obviously, though, there’s a way to do the past that’s bad/hard/not helpful, just as there’s a way to do the future that’s bad/hard/not helpful.

When you reflect on the past, are you present in it? Are you reflecting on a real past, or a fake one? On the day my father died, before we learned he’d died, my entire family was all but cursing him. And somehow, the moment he died, to all of them he instantly became “Saint Frank.” He did no wrong, but any wrong he may have done wasn’t his fault, it was my mother’s fault (or mine). I looked at them in bewilderment: who is this person you’re grieving? I never met him, and I knew him my whole 23 years of life. If your marriage ends and you reflect on it, are you only pulling out the happy bits (or the unhappy bits) and letting that be the thing you are remembering? In both of those examples, the person reflecting is dwelling on an unreal past in which he or she didn’t live.

When you anticipate the future, are you present in it? Is it a present with any connection to you at all? Maybe it’s entirely bleak, or maybe it’s entirely rosy, but is it connected to you? The future is entirely about hope, whether it’s a lack or abundance, but it’s central aspect is hope. (Think about that and see if it’s not true — I think it is.)

So the past and the future aren’t off limits to the present, as long as they are real, as long as you are (or were, or can be) present in them. As a Christian, Kierkegaard’s examples were often drawn from the Bible, and two illuminated this for me. Both of these broke my heart with their truth, and made me really get it.

  • Job, painted by Léon Bonnat -- the most agonizing painting of pain I know
    Job, painted by Léon Bonnat — the most agonizing painting of pain I know

    Job: “He lost everything, but not in one blow, for the Lord took away, and the Lord took away, and the Lord took away. The friends taught him to perceive the bitterness of loss; for the Lord gave, and the Lord gave, and the Lord gave, and a foolish wife into the bargain. He lost everything, for what he kept is of no interest to us. Honor is due him, dear ~, for his gray hair and his unhappiness. He lost everything, but he had possessed it.”

Because he was present to his abundance while he had it, and because he remembered it as it was — even as that loss was so painful — he was essentially happy, even in his unhappiness. He didn’t turn against all he’d had and belittle it, diminish it; he remembered it as it was, in its joy and happiness, even though it was now a lost happiness. No sour grapes for Job.

  • The father of the prodigal son: I’m summarizing rather than quoting here. All his life, the father lived in hope that his son would return, hoping and imagining that moment. It was always possible. When the son did return, the father’s joy was overwhelmingly happy, but even casting back to his misery during his son’s absence, that pain was unhappy but contained happiness because of his hope. If his son were dead but the father persisted in hoping or imagining that one day the son would come back, that hope would be miserable. (My aunt believed that my father was just on a business trip in Phoenix for the years between his death and hers, and that he’d come back — a perfect example of this.)

So my understanding of this ‘resolution’ is quite different from “resist absentminded busyness.” I guess I would instead summarize it as “experience what is actually happening,” past present and future. Maybe I’m biased to interpret it this way; when my life fell completely apart at the end of 2012, for months I felt every bit of the pain of it – on purpose. I remember thinking that I felt devastated because my life had been devastated. The feeling was appropriate. My heart felt so broken because my marriage had ended and I had to leave a place I loved and my granddaughter died and my daughter and her husband suffered the worst possible blow and I couldn’t do one thing to ease their pain. So of course my heart felt broken, it was entirely appropriate. For some reason I decided not to act otherwise, not to distract myself, not to reframe it, but to feel what was really happening because it was really happening. It was agony, and at times I wondered if it was a foolish thing to be doing because it hurt so bad it often felt unbearable, but I’m glad I did it. I learned that that much pain won’t kill me, even if it feels like it will. I learned that I’m strong, and I wouldn’t have learned that if I’d run away and lied to myself about it. And weirdly, there was a kind of pleasure in feeling what was true, even though it was agony, just because it was true. It involves a willingness to allow and hold complexity — my marriage contained terribleness and goodness, and I remembered both. That was true.

So in this framework, living in the present moment allows me the hope of the future as long as I am present in that future in a real way. Living in the present allows me my memories as long as they are as close to their reality as possible and not rewritten. All three instants of time — past, present, future — might be unhappy, but if they are real and true, I am a happy person. There is an integrity to accepting what is. It sounds strange, and I think it’s a subtle idea, but I think it’s deeply true. The defense mechanisms that Freud described are ways of coping with difficult experiences, and not bad in and of themselves; they become a problem to the degree they take you away from reality. So “No, my brother did not die, he is in Phoenix” is denial that presents serious problems, obviously. But “my brother died and I’m devastated” places you squarely in your real life and there is a kind of happiness in there if you understand this.

Anyway. I understand it very well. So I guess I’d reword the two ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about like this:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships
  2. Experience what is actually happening

And now I’m off to topic #3, living the questions, which relies on Rilke’s gorgeous collection of letters called Letters to a Young Poet. That’ll be fun.

sacredness

sacredI love the really big words, the ones you immediately know the meaning of until you pause a second and think about it and then you realize you have no idea what it means. Courage is one of those words, though I’ve thought about it for so many years I now have an at-my-fingertips meaning that feels deeply true and right. Wisdom is another of those big words, and so is sacred. Like a lot of words that are most easily understood in contrast to another, sacred has two typical contrasts: sacred vs secular, and sacred vs profane (which I wrote about shortly after our Gracie died).

One thing I’ve never liked about the ordinary use of the word ‘sacred’ was that it felt so “big,” so beyond, so removed from taking out the trash, working, making dinner, answering emails — the stuff of ordinary life, which is mostly how we spend our lives. Sacred trash-taking-out? You can kind of imagine that there is a way to do it that way, to be so wholly present and in the moment that you are Taking Out the Trash. Or something. The ordinary use of the word involves a place or experience set aside from all that, and necessarily so, but the times I have had that felt like a sacred experience weren’t at all like that.

I’m not a Buddhist (I’m Buddh-ish, as a twist on the old joke about not being a Jew but instead being Jew-ish), but I haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater. There are aspects, elements, concepts, approaches that are meaningful to me and that make more of my experience than I might have otherwise. Mindfulness, for instance, expands my life so greatly and can turn slicing beets into a long, large experience of the pleasure of the beet’s ruby color and earthy smell and texture, the joy of food, the treasure of being able to feed myself. And in the Shambhala tradition of Buddhism, there is an understanding of the word ‘sacred’ that does come down to the moments and experience of life with a little L.  First, though, you need to understand the concept of “basic goodness.” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the Shambhala tradition of Buddhism, identified basic goodness as the basic human virtue and the experience of reality:

“Discovering real goodness comes from appreciating very simple experiences. We are not talking about how good it feels to make a million dollars or finally graduate from college or buy a new house, but we are speaking here of the basic goodness of being alive — which does not depend on our accomplishments or fulfilling our desires. We experience glimpses of goodness all the time, but we often fail to acknowledge them. When we see a bright color, we are witnessing our own inherent goodness. When we hear a beautiful sound, we are hearing our own basic goodness. When we step out of the shower, we feel fresh and clean, and when we walk out of a stuffy room, we appreciate the sudden whiff of fresh air. These events take a fraction of a second, but they are real experiences of goodness.”

So your central virtue is your basic goodness, you’re born with it. I suppose it’s the VERY rare human being who doesn’t still hold at least a flicker of basic goodness, even if he or she has abandoned it. Maybe it’s the ‘soul’ of some spiritual traditions, I don’t know. There’s a lot I don’t understand about this concept of basic goodness, and when I poke at it I get more confused, but there’s also a way I can just go along with it and understand the meaning without needing to put it into words.

And here’s where I return to the meaning of the word sacred that touches the quotidian, and why I brought up basic goodness in the first place. It puts the word sacred in a frame I can grasp, and in an understanding that lets me find sacred much more easily — and it doesn’t require an altar and hymns and a fleeting moment in a building with a leader. I just read this passage by Chogyam Trungpa’s son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of the Shambhala tradition since his father died, and it struck me:

When we use this term “basic goodness” it indicates some fundamental possibility. Life is possible. Situations are possible. And anybody can start to gain some kind of insight and appreciation of their lives. That’s what we call “sacred.” It doesn’t mean something dramatic, but something very simple. There’s a sacredness to everyone’s life. In order to relate to it, you have to build confidence. […] There’s a tremendous amount of fear in people’s lives. I think it’s based on not wanting to reveal oneself. You’re always protecting yourself. […] One must break out of the world which is comfort-oriented.

I wish this was followed by a 10-item checklist, “10 steps to break out of a comfort-oriented view of the world!” Obviously, his approach would be based on meditation and a Buddhist approach to existence, and there’s a lot about that approach that doesn’t sit for me. (Ha, no pun intended…)

wow.
wow.

But return to the initial premise: anyone can start to gain some kind of insight and appreciation of their lives, and THAT is called “sacred.” It really isn’t any more dramatic than that. Cutting a fresh beet I can touch the sacred, and it has felt like that to me before! The real wonder of that color. The very real wonder of being, and preparing and eating that gorgeous thing that also exists, the pleasure of feeling it in my mouth, enjoying the taste of it. It can be a little scary to reveal that to someone if you think about it — and there’s the fear of revealing oneself! Sometimes when we’re moved we feel afraid we’ll be judged, so we affect a kind of hip irony: Yeah, right, sacred beet, what a goof! Ha ha ha.

I can open myself to understanding and appreciating my life and all it has been, and all it is right now, and I can understand and appreciate you in it, us in it together. I can understand and appreciate the fact that my being, my own basic goodness, also resonates and vibrates around words and meaning. That’s me, and I can appreciate it and find the sacred in it. That’s ME. I am in this world in this way, I came like this and I’ll probably leave like this. You resonate and vibrate around something, you add it to the world, it’s you, and wow.

Happy Saturday, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. If you’re so inclined, you could find the sacred in it even if it’s just about taking out the trash.

so open

Am I an open book? Not really....
Am I an open book? Not really….

This is something I hear so often, and it always surprises me: “You are so open!” And then, “How do you do it,” or “I can’t do that,” or “I admire that.” I suppose the people who don’t admire it — and they surely exist — just don’t say that to me, or I’m not the kind of person they like or feel comfortable with, so they don’t choose me as a friend. It isn’t that I don’t know what they’re talking about, but I don’t ever quite get why it reads as being especially open. That, I don’t really understand.

Obviously, I select what I reveal! Just like you, I have so many different parts of me, and thoughts, and experiences, and wonderings that remain private for all possible reasons. There are things I’ll never go anywhere near talking about with strangers, some that I’ll never talk about with friends, some with family, and some with my husband. I have those rings of privacy just like everyone else. So the things I talk about are things that don’t feel like I’m taking a risk to reveal or discuss or think about publicly.

Maybe people say this because I talk openly about mental health stuff, like my periodic bouts of terrible depression and occasionally even worse depression, how I experience anxiety, how I struggle to deal with those things. I do know that our culture, despite seeming to be open to those concerns, isn’t really. There are circumstances in which it’s in your worst interest to reveal these things, like work, or places you hold responsibility for something. I know I’ve said this before, but when I was a graduate student in psychology and struggling with an eventually suicidal level of depression, I was cautioned by a faculty member not to reveal my depression to anyone. In psychology. We say we’re open to that, we exhort people to speak about it, but it’s still not OK in a very real way. But again, it doesn’t feel like a risk I’m taking to talk about it, so it doesn’t feel like I’m being particularly open.

Maybe people say this because I’ll talk about struggles I have, or all those (great many) moments where life takes a nosedive, like it does for everyone. I know that I am especially invested in not working to present a glossy image, but only because I don’t want to be trapped by that. Well, also because I do care a lot about being authentic, and I work at that. (Doesn’t that sound weird, to “work at” being authentic? Shouldn’t that be the easiest thing? But boy, it really isn’t.)

And in fact, the last point circles back to the beginning. One thing I hate about social presentation is that invites comparisons to self, and usually it’s a downward comparison. “Her life is so together, even her cloth napkins are always ironed.” [no they aren’t.] “She’s got everything, she’s always going to such exotic places.” [no, that’s not all she does, there are lonely and terrible and scary and desperate times and a lot she doesn’t have.] “Her kids are never a screaming bloody mess like mine.” [yes they are, I guarantee, and if they’re not, they’re on the road to becoming serial killers. 😉 ] My life contains everything, good and bad, joyous and tragic, exciting and boring, hopeful and devastating, and all points in between. Just. Like. Yours.

So if you ever think I’m an open book and you think that in a why am I not like that framework, please don’t. Just like you, I’m open about what I feel comfortable being open about. Our categories might differ, but I’m exactly like you. I pick and choose and hold a universe of stuff close to my chest and reveal it to some and hide it from others, just like you do. There are some things I’d like to be more open about but it’s still too difficult or scary, and some I know I will just never talk about. But if the things I’m open about mean something to you, then I am so very glad. My biggest aim in writing this blog is for people to feel less alone. Reading others does that for me, and it’s my favorite thing.

xoxoxox

*waving my hand, hello!!!*

Well, I know I seem to have disappeared — not just since my last post, which was more than a month ago, but really since August. In September I only posted twice, in October four times, and in November twice. And here it is, December 10. There has been a lot going on; a slow descent into a very dark place, and the slower than anticipated coming out of it, and then our trip to Vietnam and Thailand that was preceded by my trip to Chicago for Marnie’s baby shower, and followed by a couple of days in New York. Also, I’ve been writing on a big project so my spare writing time has gone to that book.

And so here I am, still here and grateful if you are, too. I’ve been thinking a whole lot, and I’ve become obsessed by the subject of self-deception. We say that phrase lightly, but I can’t figure out what it means. I understand deceiving someone else, but if you know a thing how can you deceive yourself about it? If, for instance, you really hate something and choose/decide/have to do it, and you tell yourself you don’t really hate it, you know you hate it and that’s why you’re telling yourself you don’t hate it. So you aren’t deceiving yourself, you’ve just decided to tell a story to others — to deceive them. Or let’s say you have gained a lot of weight (which you obviously know about) and tell yourself you don’t care, you like yourself however you are, there are at least a couple of possibilities. One is that you really do! So there’s no self-deception there. One is that you don’t, but you say you do for all kinds of reasons. You aren’t deceiving yourself because you know you don’t. And then the Freudian/subconscious thing — deep down you know, but you aren’t aware of it….and so you aren’t deceiving yourself!

Honestly, I cannot figure this out. I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy and psychology texts, and it seems to be popping up in the good literature I’ve been reading, prompting me each time to call out to Marc, read the passage to him, and continue the discussion that has obsessed me. If you know a thing and tell yourself something different, you know the thing so you haven’t deceived yourself. If you don’t know the thing but you tell yourself something that isn’t right, you don’t know the thing so you aren’t deceiving yourself. AAAAARGH.

And so another obvious question is why have I become obsessed by this topic. It’s like my frustration over people who write books wondering why there is something instead of nothing (my unhappy review of that book here) — it’s an unanswerable question, so the real question is why are you pursuing the question, what does it mean to you? What would the different answers mean to you? I can’t yet figure out why I’m obsessed by this issue of self-deception, but boy am I. If we’ll be seeing each other and having a glass of wine or something, expect a conversation about it. You might prepare. 🙂

this is the first book of the series -- keep going through all four
this is the first book of the series — keep going through all four

On vacation I read all four of the brilliant Elena Ferrante books, the Neopolitan novels. I’m going to write a post in a few days looking at the books I read this year, because there was a very interesting theme, but for now I’ll just say a few things:

  • Stop everything else, get these books, and read them. (Here, click here, I’ve made it easy for you — the EFerrante page on Amazon.) I haven’t been so affected by a book, so personally moved, in such a long time. And I was moved in a very different way. Moby Dick moved the hell out of me and still leaves me in awe, but it’s a kind of distanced awe. These books leave ME in awe, rather than my opinion. I can’t get it right, I haven’t yet figured out how to talk about it, but just read them.
  • It’s very hard to notice what’s not there. You may notice it in an abstract way, but it’s hard to notice the feel, the texture, the heart of something that’s not there, and reading these books made me so keenly aware of how rare it is to explore the richness of real women’s lives and interiors. It made me achingly aware of how invisible our true experiences are, how fleeting is the glance we’re paid, and it’s rarely a real and true glance. When I finished the fourth book, I turned immediately to the book selection for book club this month and just could not do it. The main character, a young boy, a mahout, in Istanbul in the 16th century. Stock characters, including the princess he impossibly falls in love with. Evildoers and false everything. I just could not possibly care less. (When I couldn’t read the book club selection, I decided to start Moby Dick and couldn’t. All dudes all the time. Even the whale is a dude. Then I decided to read Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, which I can almost always read. Couldn’t do it. The only other book that left me unable to read anything else afterwards was Moby Dick.) I have wondered why in the world I soaked up Orange is the New Black the way I did, greedily, and felt sad when the season ended and there wasn’t more to watch. It wasn’t the prison melodrama, it wasn’t the ridiculous Piper storyline(s), it was the stories of the other women, the black women, the Hispanic women, Red, the former nun — their lives and struggles and big fronts. The end of the last season, when Black Cindy’s conversion to Judaism takes a real root in her, well, I can’t even think about that without crying.

I need the stories of real women, and they’re much harder to find. Women write male characters, and on occasion a man will write a female character well; at the time, I thought Wally Lamb wrote Delores so well in She’s Come Undone, the whole time I thought the author was a woman. But I want women authors writing about women, so if you have some recommendations I’d love to hear them. Not the Brontes please, or Jane Austen. (Nothing against them, I’m just looking for something else.)

To work for me — a happy Thursday to you all! Mine comes with zero sleep the night before, so it’ll be an interesting day. I’m so lucky to work for myself, at home, so if I crash I can do that. There are so many ways I’m lucky it’s hard to keep count. xoxox

Happy birthday to me!

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” ― Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

Today I turn 57. In the last year, I had truly extraordinary times, so many joyous times, easy happiness for months on end, one deeply painful issue that still hurts and in fact hurts more than I think I can bear sometimes, and one dark period and one deep dark black period. This is long, but I have so very much to be grateful for, and you’re in here, I promise you. I learned a lot about myself this year; what a treat, that you can keep surprising yourself for so long. I kept my promise to myself this whole year in terms of eating well and mindfully, and doing near-daily yoga and meditating and walking. I celebrated our precious and happy Oliver turning 1, and the news of my darling Marnie’s pregnancy with a boy, arriving at the end of February. Two grandsons, what gifts, as I watch my family, the little family I tried so hard to make, grow into the future.

Since my last birthday I traveled a lot. I went to NYC every month, except the two months Marc came here. I went to Chicago on Mother’s Day to see Marnie and loved sitting in her booth at Zine Fest and seeing people respond to her beautiful work. Right after my birthday last year we went to Laos and Cambodia; in March I went to Colombia; in July I went to Norway and saw the midnight sun; in 13 days I return to Vietnam for the fifth time. Seeing the world, a treasure I never thought would happen to me, but it has for the last 10 years.

This year I celebrated the birthdays of my dearest daughters Katie and Marnie, and their families, and my friends. With my book club boon companions, we read books, we ate good food, we laughed so much, we went to happy hours together, we saved each other in one way or another, and our friendships deepened even more. With friends near and far, I enjoyed love and friendship and laughs and commiseration. With Traci I had two lunches each month in NYC and hours of sharing ourselves with each other, such a treasure. Dinners with Craig in New York, though not nearly enough of those, always rich in laughter and feeling seen and known. I even got to see Sherlock this year, but not my darling Peggy. Dear friends in Austin, in other states, in Europe and Canada, and even on the other side of the world, down under — all very real to me, very important, dear friends. Although I already knew this, I learned even more about how critical friends are to a full and happy life, and sometimes to life itself. My friends saved me last month in a very real way. So many walked right into that deep, dark hole and held my hands gently and brought me back into the light, friends in Austin and New York and Connecticut and Pennsylvania and France and Australia, just staggering. Friends, riches beyond compare. Daughters, wealth beyond compare.

a friend interlude -- my book club women, so much love
a friend interlude — book club women, so much love. missing Dee.

kandoI have a chosen family that carries me gently and with so much love, and I feel the same. Sherlock and Craig, my brothers. Peggy and Dixie, my sisters. Don, my Jewish father. Nancy, my….no idea, just my dearly loved family. I feel like there is so much more to say there, but I don’t know the words. I’ve done without a mother for 57 years, so I guess it’ll go that way, but I have a big enough family to hold and enfold me. And then of course my birthed family, Katie and Marnie, who I simply could not do without. Their husbands, always so good to me and to my daughters. I’m so grateful for my sweet family.

Since my last birthday I read so many books, mostly for work, but some for pleasure: Did You Ever Have a Family; A Little Life; Do No Harm; four of the Karl Ove Knausgaard volumes titled  My Struggle; On the Move, Oliver Sacks’ memoir; A House in the Sky; The End of Your Life Book Club; The Empathy Exams; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; The Unspeakable; Kafka on the Shore; She Weeps Each Time You’re Born; Norwegian Wood; Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage; Station Eleven; Dept. of Speculation; The Laughing Monsters; West of Sunset; The Children Act; The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing; Loitering; The Bone Clocks; Everything I Never Told Youand Cutting for Stone. Of these, my very favorites were the four giant Knausgaards, A Little Life, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, Station Eleven, Loiteringand Dept. of Speculation. And then there were so many I reread for the remembered pleasure, including the one I’m rereading for the 5th(?) time, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. That always feels like an autumn book to me for some strange reason. So many I reread, I can’t even remember. The gift of literature, my oldest and most consistent love, I guess.

Every month but one, I think, poetry group met in my house and we shared truly wonderful evenings together, nearly all of the poetry beautiful and expansive and moving. Those friends taught me so much about poetry, and I’m so grateful for their generosity. I learned some new poets to follow, like Frank Bidart, and two of my friendships in that group deepened a lot. I found new music thanks to my very dear friend Val, who sent me an album of Imagine Dragons because she thought I would enjoy it, and at just the perfect time, and added a lot of Iris Dement to my library, thanks to my beautiful Traci. Around Austin and New York, and around the world, I ate a lot of fabulous food and will be drinking a whole lot of amazing tea (thank you Sherlock and Peggy). And I cooked a lot of fabulous food too, including this buttermilk biscuit jag I’ve been on and can’t seem to stop—especially since I discovered Tasmanian Leatherwood honey, and received some of Karyn’s delicious honey from her bees. Books, poetry, music, food, so many riches.

And the ordinaries, the moments throughout the days and weeks that give me peace and ease, or simple happiness, or even joy and bliss, which I am grateful to experience on a regular basis. My morning coffee routine, a deep pleasure never taken for granted. Weekly coffee breaks with Nancy, communion in the deepest, real meaning of that word. The real pleasure of my sweet little home, and the way I get to welcome people into it. Drawing, which I learned how to do this year, a regular joy and wonder. Nightly walks and stories in my ear, meditative pleasures. Sitting on my patio in the cool moments of a day, feeling the soft air on my face and the quiet joy of having my own space. My so-cozy bed, my refuge at the end of each day, crisp white sheets and a soft comforter.

Of course Facebook makes it easy for people — far-flung people — to wish you a happy birthday, but it’s always so surprising to get the emails, cards, gifts, and notes from people who remember. Like Kty in Paris, who remembered — how? how did she remember this? — that I love yellow flowers. People who remind me about Big Daddy or Mister Rogers just when I need to remember them — how do you do that? Little interpersonal touches that show me that somehow I live in the hearts of people in so many places. It doesn’t feel like there is a big enough gratitude for touches like these.

OandP090215No one ever knows what the coming year will bring, me least of all. I’ve noticed that the things I worry about most tend not to happen, and I never once imagined the dreadfulest things that happened. I guess, if it’s not too greedy, I’d like another year like this past year: daughters and their sons and husbands, friends far and wide, books, art, poetry, good food, travel, continued good health for me and Marc and everyone I know please. Gee, that looks like a whole lot to ask for. I expect and hope to travel to Chicago in February for the birth of Marnie’s and Tom’s son, and I expect I won’t get nearly my fill of my kids and grandsons, even little Oliver who lives up the road a ways.

I’m damn glad to be here and I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you for being here with me, and for celebrating my birthday with me if you do. Thank you for living this life with me, for the ways you keep me going, the ways you share yourself with me, and the ways you encourage me with so much love. Thank you for the times you let me love you. I’m so grateful for this past year, which was an absolutely wonderful year in almost every way. Even the dark times mattered, even though I did not like the suffering. So happy birthday to me, and many more! On to 58!

p.s. I’ll bet you knew that I cried while writing every single word. xoxoxox