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?

the hazard of self-knowledge

One of the unexpected consequences of the Milgram studies on obedience, and a consequence that led eventually to the creation of Human Subjects Commissions, was that people learned unpleasant truths about themselves. They learned that they would administer what they believed were likely fatal levels of shock to a complete stranger just because someone told them to do it. And of course, they only way that study could’ve produced real evidence was to put people in the actual setting, right? Because if you ask someone, “Would you administer a fatal level of shock to a complete stranger if someone asked you to do it?” people would immediately say no way, and that would be wrong for a frighteningly large number of people (but not all! Some people refused, and we have to remember that part, too.).

After the experiment, participants had to face this truth about themselves. Of course they hadn’t actually been administering shock, but they believed they had. The experiment was so clever, and so well-done, that they listened to the ‘shocked person’ scream and beg and then go silent, and still they administered stronger levels of shock. Sure, they may have sweated and felt miserable and asked not to do it, but then they went on. And so they had to know that about themselves.

I was thinking about this when I watched the documentary Tower, about the mass shooting at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966. It’s very good, and as of this moment it’s streaming on your local PBS channel/website. I remember that day very well; we lived in Austin, I was still 7 years old, and summer was nearing its end. My dad was working at the state capitol building that day. My mother was probably watching Password, her favorite game show, but I remember the news breaking in to tell us to stay away from the campus, and I remember seeing it all unfold on television back before anything like that had ever happened in this country. I remember feeling pure panic that the bad man might shoot my dad; back then, the UT Tower and the capitol were the tallest buildings in town, and visible from each other. Austin was such a small town then.

Not everyone was a coward, though — there were many extraordinary selfless people

One moving scene in the documentary is when a woman confesses that she learned that day that she’s a coward. She was afraid to go help the wounded because she didn’t want to get shot. She had to face that, she said, and that’s the day she learned that lesson about herself.

One of the real heroes of the day, aside from the men who were responsible for killing Whitman, was a young woman named Rita Starpattern. The first student shot was a very young 8-months-pregnant woman named Claire. As Claire lay on the burning hot concrete for an hour, with bullets whizzing past her and her baby shot to death inside her, and her boyfriend lying shot dead next to her, Rita ran towards her and lay crouched at her feet, talking to her and keeping her conscious. Finally three brave young men raced out onto the mall and grabbed Claire by the hands and feet, and picked up her dead boyfriend, and carried them out of harm’s way. Rita risked her life in the truest way just to be there with Claire, so she didn’t have to be there all alone, and those boys risked their lives too, because they couldn’t bear having that young woman lying there one minute longer.

And so of course you ask yourself the question, knowing that the real answer might be very different than what you imagine. Would I run out, in danger, to help a stranger? I know two things about myself that lead to contradictory answers:

  • I’m extremely impulsive and emotional, and my absolute impulse would be to run out there and not care about the danger I might be in — it would feel like a moral imperative, and my impulsivity would trump my thought.
  • But I have PTSD and am profoundly scared by a number of things, so if any of those elements were in play (and gunfire is one) I might well dissociate and disappear inside myself.

One thing I’m very curious about, though, is the effect of that unhappy self-knowledge. It’s not like you learn something about yourself and that’s that! COWARD! Now and forevermore, coward. OR now and forevermore, I will shock someone to death if I’m told to do so. Can’t you learn something about yourself and use that information to change, if you don’t like what you learn? Of course I don’t know what happened with each participant in the Milgram studies, but the woman in the Tower documentary was still saying that about herself fifty years after that terrible day. It’s the same thing as learning from a mistake, isn’t it? Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, there is one that I deeply regret and boy did I learn something about myself, and boy did I make vows to myself, which I’ve honored for 25 years.

Live and learn, and do better.

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: 1/17/17

FEED: My Sunday was incredible — I attended the National Poets Against Trump protest and the National Writers Resist protest here in Austin, and wished with all my heart I could’ve been at the ones in New York City. The writers’ protest there was held on the steps of the New York Public Library, and how I would’ve loved to be there.

At the NYPL

I also attended a training session for nonviolent protest, organized by the women organizing the Austin Women’s March (they’re expecting more than 22,000 people!), so all that comes together to lead me to share this powerful poem.

A Woman Speaks (Audre Lorde)

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did
mourning.

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
promised
I am
woman
and not white.

From The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.

That feeds me, sisters, it does.

This is amazing, amazing Joe Brundidge.

SEED: Even though mine is such a heavily literary life, I’m not hooked into the quite large literary community here in Austin, though I want to be — especially after attending the writers protest and seeing a good portion of it. I sat there at BookPeople thinking These are my people. All of them, these are MY people. I thought it at the poets protest too; we who need words, who value words, who understand the power of words to fight, and who turn to them in times of trouble. He was at the poets protest too, but I must have been distracted because I didn’t really GET Joe until he spoke at the writers protest. He read two pieces, the first of which I remembered from the poets protest a few hours earlier. But then he read the second one, and he is such an amazing speaker it just felt like he suddenly started talking to us, and with urgency. It was about the critical importance of doing your work, of not waiting, and of how important it is, and he spoke right to the things you say that stop yourself, and he was right there ready to step into the muck and lift you out, rinse it off of you because he needs you, he needs your voice. I just sat there crying and feeling LOVED, and held. When he finished speaking, the next speaker was Sarah Bird — actually the person I was most eager to hear — but I couldn’t pay attention because I was afraid Joe would leave, so I just kept my eye on him.

As soon as Sarah quit speaking, while the next speaker was being introduced I jumped up (I was on the front row) and dashed over to Joe, who didn’t know me from Adam. I asked, “Can I hug you?” And with his giant smile, this tremendous bear of a man reached out his arms and hugged me so tight, so solid and still, and for so long. I moved slightly, to end the hug, just because I didn’t want him to feel stuck, and he didn’t let go. So I just relaxed, and I’ll bet we hugged for two solid minutes, maybe three. I thanked him and told him how much I needed to hear what he said, and my eyes filled with tears. Then I got shy and embarrassed and ducked back to my seat, but for the rest of the night I was held by him, and his words, and I felt better than I have in a very long time.

Joe is a host on Writing on the Air (here are his interviews), and he’s the director of the Austin International Poetry Festival. Here’s Joe in action, at Austin’s wonderful, wonderful independent book store Malvern Books, host of the poets protest and so many other wonderful events. He’s not as intense and passionate in this video as he was at the protest, but you get a feel for who he is.

That’s one thing I love about life. You can just be sitting there, expecting so little, and encounter someone who blows you over, envelopes you with love and acceptance and wonder, and you come away healed. I love that.

READ: I will just share some good thoughts and reading if you’re in the same general mindset I’m in this week, as we prepare for ….. ugh. Well, you know. Think about, remember, do these things:

  • “My existence requires no one’s permission.” (Joe Brundidge, beautiful Joe)
  • Someone at the poets protest said, “Aesthetically and philosophically, any poetry is against Trump.” No Republican president has ever had a poet at inauguration. Shocked? Nah.
  • “Don’t just sit there simulating a free person.” ~Austin poet Greg Liotta
  • When he takes the oath of office on Friday, January 19, you take the oath too. Take the oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution (against him and his swamp monsters).
    https://www.wall-of-us.org/taketheoath/
  • Here’s a list of 27 books every woman should read if they’re going to the women’s march or NOT. I’ve only read five, how can that be…..gotta get busy.
  • A pivot: Harvard’s photography courses are online, and free. If you complete all the modules, you get a certificate. The software they use is old (~2009, I think), but the basics of photography haven’t changed.

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: 1/10/17

1)  Are you a completionist? I’d never heard the word until Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia) said it when she was introducing her reading of a Mavis Gallant story in a podcast I listened to yesterday. She described herself as not-quite-a-completionist of Gallant’s writings, and I got to wondering:

Is there a writer whose entire set of works you’ve read? All of them? Not just the big-name ones, but all of them?

I started thinking about some of my favorite writers, and I don’t think so:

my very favorite memoir

Nick Flynn — sure, his big three memoirs (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (x4), The Reenactment  (x2), Ticking is the Bomb), and one or two collections of his poetry, but not all his poetry. Dang.

Cormac McCarthy — Child of God, Suttree, Blood Meridian (x6), All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, No Country for Old Men (x3), and The Road, but not The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, or Cities of the Plain. (Nor any of his screenplays, short fiction, or plays.)

Salman Rushdie — Grimus, Midnight’s Children (x4), Shame, Satanic Verses (x3), The Moor’s Last Sigh, Fury, East West, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Imaginary Homelands but not The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Shalimar the Clown, The Enchantress of Florence, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Luka and the Fire of Life, Joseph Anton, or The Jaguar Smile.

Victor Hugo — only Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris. 🙁

Dante — ding ding ding! Yep! I read The Divine Comedy, which was his only published work. And in several translations — my favorites being the John Ciardi translation, my sentimental favorite because I read it first, when I was a brand new mother, and the edition translated by the Hollanders, which is just extraordinary in every way.

William Faulker — The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom, These 13 (which includes “A Rose for Emily”), but not The Hamlet, The Town, or The Mansion.

Ernest Hemingway — The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Moveable Feast, but none of the rest.

F. Scott Fitzgerald — all his novels: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and The Damned, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, The Last Tycoon, but none of his novellas or short stories.

this is the edition I have; my copy first belonged to my dad

Kurt Vonnegut — Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan (x???10?), Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle (x7 or 8?), God Bless you Mr Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, Galapagos, Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus, Timequake, Welcome to the Monkey House, Happy Birthday Wanda June, God Bless You Dr Kevorkian, Wampeters Foma and Granfaloons, Bagombo Snuffbox, and Palm Sunday. I missed a few novels and a bit of his non-fiction.

I guess one approach is to pick writers who don’t write very many books (like Dante). I get on these jags where I fall in love with a writer and just want to read it all, so I dig in. I did that with McCarthy for sure, and Vonnegut, and Rushdie, and Nick Flynn. As I’ve mentioned before, here, I bought these sets of hardback books when I was a teenager, four books by Hemingway, four by Faulkner, and four by Fitzgerald, and read them all at once, which I don’t recommend — especially for writers like those, who have such a specific and distinctive style. It then becomes hard to remember which one was which. (My favorite joke: Now which Hemingway was it where the guy dies in the mud, under the bridge? Oh yeah — all of them! 😉 )

I’m working on Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, completing all their published works to date. And then sometimes I kind of outgrow a writer, I guess; I’ve read so many of their books and I come to feel like I understand them and their projects, and maybe they get a little tired, too, and a new book of theirs comes out and I just don’t have the interest. That happened to me with Salman Rushdie.

Some people love mystery writers and read all their works; Sue Grafton is a good example, with her alphabetical series. I guess I started early, reading all the Nancy Drews, all the Hardy Boys, all the Cherry Ames Student Nurse books, all the Trixie Beldens, and all the Boxcar Children books. It was not the worst habit I formed in my childhood. 🙂 So, you? I suppose you might do this with film-makers too, or musicians! Or actors. Or other artists. Hmmm. Any completionists in this crowd?

2) Do you know about this project? What’s Underneath:

You can click the image to go to the site, and I also provided it in the link, above. It’s a collection of stories (each accompanied by a video) by women (almost entirely, but not completely, and in some cases a story is about non-binary gender) and race, age, weight and size, illness, hair, work, motherhood, gender, identity, sexuality, all the things of real life and how they don’t immediately fit the Barbie image of “American woman,” but how the storytellers have found their way through, because of, despite, in celebration of their differences from Barbie ideals.

Diane Goldie

The one I most want to share is by London artist Diane Goldie, whose piece is called “Maybe I’m not ‘fuckable’…That’s fine, I’m not for you to fuck.” She is “a larger, menopausal, 51-year-old woman. I am not invisible.” When she was 13, she was raped by a 36-year-old pedophile. “After he raped me, I lost ownership of my body,” Diane says. “It became the vehicle in which I pleased other people.” I get that. Her video is no longer available on the What’s Underneath site, unfortunately, but I can share this, a video of Diane in conversation with Sue Kreitzman about wearable art. As you can guess by her picture, she isn’t trying to be invisible.

Me, I have a huge craving for a pair of cherry red tartan plaid pants and a close-fitting cherry red blazer.

3) I love this quote, which I saw in the caption of a beautiful photograph by author Maggie Mackellar, who lives on a farm on the east coast of Tasmania:

“…beauty & grace are performed whether or not we see or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Annie Dillard

In addition to her gorgeous photography (I linked to her Instagram account above), she’s just the most beautiful, eloquent writer (two books published so far, she’s working on her next one). She published a three-part series last fall about her father’s death; this link will take you to the first piece, which will then lead you to the other two. Anyway, Maggie knows very well about suffering, and perhaps this is what helped her recognize the power of the Annie Dillard quote about beauty and grace.

It’s there, beauty & grace, even if you have to look very very hard. Even if the day feels heavy and ugly, even if you look out your window and see gray and brown and filth, even if you’re just sitting in the same old place you always sit, beauty & grace are happening somewhere — maybe you don’t see it right now but it is. When I’m having a hard time seeing it in my surroundings, for some reason I always think about the glacier valley we walked through in Norway — Lyngsdalen — and that no matter what’s happening, those mountains are just standing there over that valley. In the months-long dark, they stand there, and maybe the Northern Lights dance through the valley, or maybe not, but they stand there, solid and present no matter what. Whether anyone is looking, whether war is raging somewhere, whether I am lonely or bleak, those beautiful mountains are standing over that valley.

I walked there. I drank handfuls of cold glacier water out of that river running through the valley. It’s doing its thing RIGHT NOW.

The least we can do is try to see the beauty & grace where and when we find it. That seems like the least we can do. See it, notice it, take it in.

Flying day for me, back to Austin — xoxox

three things: 1/3/17

1)  I started reading Underground Airlines by Ben Winters, following on the heels of The Underground Railroad, and so far it’s spectacular. Honestly, I don’t know why the black people in the United States aren’t raging and fighting white America all the time. (And we women, too.) They (we) have every right to be doing that, and every single time some white American says something about slavery being a long time ago just get over it . . . well hell, even want to punch those people in the throat. This country. We arrived and right off the bat started killing people and stealing their land, and just kept doing that (through to today). And then we stole people from another continent and brutalized them in unimaginable ways to enrich ourselves, and then enacted laws to keep them from getting anywhere (through to today). One horrible thing I learned when a friend did my ancestry is that someone in my history owned slaves in Georgia. She shrugged a little, it’s the thing you learn, and yet it’s horrifying to imagine. And so I too deserve the rage. In the second episode of The OA, a new series on Netflix, a voice-over read the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty (“The New Colossus”) and vomit came up in my throat, it’s such a lie.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The world is going mad and it’s so scary. And the United States is the engine of so much of it. How does a person work with that? (I’ll say more about Underground Airlines after I finish it….)

2) Depression status stable. Not feeling better but not feeling worse, and when you deal with depression you know that’s a good enough report. One thing I’m trying (among many things) is a daily inoculation of art, and today I’m rolling my eyeballs around in this glorious color — great thanks to my beautiful friend Anne for posting the painting on FB a couple of days ago:

Max Kurzweil (Austrian; Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession; 1867-1916): Lady in Yellow, 1899. Oil on canvas. Vienna Museum at Karlsplatz, Vienna, Austria.

That color! I would really like to take my eyeballs out of my head and just roll them around in it, coat them like you do a sugar cookie, and then pop them back so that color can seep into me. It’s so glorious, especially in these very gray NYC days. Tomorrow I’m going to a special event at MoMA, 1.5 hours of silence on the 4th and 5th floor galleries, ending in a guided meditation (in front of Monet’s “Water Lilies,” I think). That ought to help too.

My dear sister-friend Peggy gave me the suggestion to make a long list (25 items on mine) of small things I could do, simple things, nourishing things, and you know, when you’re mentally flat and blank the problem is that nothing feels do-able anyway, much less thinking up a list of things. But with her help I did, and daily art is doable. If you are prone to depression, make your list when you’re not depressed, it’s much easier.

3)  Another bit of art stolen from a friend’s FB (this time from beautiful Kathy, who understands so much):

This is not an age of beauty,
I say to the Rite-Aid as I pass a knee-high plastic witch
whose speaker-box laugh is tripped by my calf
breaking the invisible line cast by her motion
sensor. My heart believes it is a muscle

of love, so how do I tell it it is a muscle of blood?

This morning, I found myself
awake before my alarm & felt I’d been betrayed

by someone. My sleep is as thin as a paper bill
backed by black bars of coal that iridesce
indigo in the federal reserve of

dreams. Look, I said to the horse’s
head I saw severed & then set on the ground, the soft
tissue of the cheek & crown cleaved with a necropsy
knife until the skull was visible. You look more
horse than the horses

with names & quilted coats in the pasture, grazing unbothered

by your body in pieces, steaming

against the drizzle. You once had a name
that filled your ears like amphitheaters,
that caused an electrical

spark to bead to your brain. My grief was born
in the wrong time, my grief an old soul, grief re-
incarnate. My grief, once a black-winged

beetle. How I find every excuse to indulge it, like a child
given quarters. In the restaurant, eating alone,

instead of interrogating my own
solitude, I’m nearly undone by the old
woman on her own. The window so filthy,

it won’t even reflect her face, which must not be the same
face she sees when she dreams

of herself in the third person.

– “Age of Beauty” by Emilia Phillips

What a wonder art is. Thank you to everyone who puts it into the world.

here we go.

And so it begins. I have not been able to say the three words one says on the first day of the year—the ones that begin with ‘happy.’ I do not see the possibility this year, even though of course I know I will have my own personal, private moments. Inevitably, they will involve my family, my friends, my pleasures in books and movies, good food, poetry, and travel. And they will exist in the context of our horrorshow government which, well, I can’t even find words. All the ones I can think of are too ordinary.

I ended 2016 with this poem, which I think also gives me a way into 2017:

In a dark place
in a dark time

start with black.
Stop. Soak up its energy.

Remember the circle
however bent and broken.

Prize balance. Seek Pleasure.
Allow surprise. Let music

guide your every impulse.
Support those who falter.

Steer by our fixed star:
No Justice, No Peace.

Jim Haba, 2016

Excerpt from “French Window at Collioure,” 1914, by Henri Matisse. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris. (Image: Wikipedia)

I am certainly in a dark place, my own deep depression and my bone-clenching fear about the incoming government, and as my dear sister Peggy suggested in a long conversation about depression, one step is “Be OK with it.” As Haba echoed, “Start with black. Stop. Soak up its energy.” Only when we stop and give ourselves over to fully taking in this darkness can we begin to gauge its scope and scale, he said.

But then unfolds the rest, right? Prize balance — and so I need to find that, and I’ll find it on my yoga mat to start, and I’ll figure out how to balance activism and life. I’ll need to seek pleasure, which means allowing the cracks to let some light in, because right now I’m too flat to feel any of it. Anhedonia, donchaknow. That poem is a flashlight in the dark, the guiding star I needed (among the rest, including friends who reach out in all the ways thankyousomuch), and perhaps, if I’m lucky enough, it will deliver me to this beautiful place shared by my friend Jacqueline:

To dance so hard my heart will learn to float above water again. It doesn’t feel possible right now, but it’s a goal. I have a feeling this year is going to be characterized by all the extremes. I will be marching, and shouting, and protesting. I will be crying, and raging. I will not be nice. (That one will be good for me.) I will be angry. I am angry.

This year I don’t have a ‘word’ for the year. I don’t have resolutions (except one: RESIST). I don’t even really have goals beyond surviving it and fighting back. In January I’ll protest on inauguration day, and I will march next to my friends Cindy and Don Ray in the Women’s March the day after, wearing our pink hats. I’ll attend rallies and organizing meetings. And to help myself survive, I’ll see Katie and her kids, and (we hope) Marnie and Ilan, and I’ll spend time with friends. I’ll make myself good food, and listen to music and try to make my feet dance — and as my beautiful friend Judi dreamed, I’ll hugdance whenever possible.

I just choke on the words, so I won’t wish a happy…but I will wish a powerful year, a productive year, a committed year, a meaningful year, and if you aren’t in this country and having to fight, as we are, those wishes apply to whatever you’re facing or embracing.

Let’s get going.

(p.s. I love you.)

 

three things: 12/30/16

1)  No talking around it, or talking in the general direction, it’s time to be blunt: I am very depressed. I know from depression, as people in the northeast would say — like my taxonomy of headaches, I have one for depression and it’s enlarged by generations behind me and now beyond me. My people are the kings of depression. I have so many versions, including one version that visits me every eight years like clockwork and ends in a suicide effort/attempt (I’ve had three of those, the last pinning the cycle in 8 years for me). I have another version that makes me sick and lays me so low I struggle to breathe. I have another version that makes me so enraged I hate the fucking sun for shining. I have a version that completely blanks out my mind, bleaches away the words and thoughts. I have the light ones, the little dips and low periods that descend and then lift, like everyone else. When I am very depressed, except for the blank version I always have an ‘explanation’ for it, my list of ‘reasons.’ They are always more or less true, more or less connected to the reality of things, even if they are slanted and deepened. Except for the dips, I have to take them seriously, for my history is as serious as death. The depression I feel now feels very true and connected perfectly to the reality of things, even as I can also see that it’s not the whole reality. The incoming president and his gang of thieves, along with my contempt for all those who voted for him, have nearly paralyzed me with fear and dread. The world I want — one where we respect each other, one where we are thoughtful and value intelligence, one where we lift an umbrella over those in need, one where we engage thoughtfully with the world — has been kicked to the curb with jackboots. That’s not hyperbole, it’s not a simple “nyah nyah I wanted my girl to win,” it’s the truth of this change that’s coming and it terrifies me. All the things I value, my values, are being shit on. They’re not just being erased, or set to the side . . . they are being shit on. And I am depressed. I really am. So many of us are. Had the Republican voters elected Jeb Bush or any other “normal” Republican, I’d have dreaded the policies of hate and cronyism, the pulling-away of concern for any but the super-rich, but it wouldn’t be the same. It’s absolute dread I feel, and I am so depressed. Color seems faded. Hope seems too quiet and tiny, a mustard seed hidden in a dusty corner behind the drapes.

I see my grandchildren there. (And then I fear the world they’re getting.) I my see my beloved children (and ditto, plus my dread for them as parents). I see my friends, the overwhelming majority of whom are with me, fighting with me, we’re helping each other (and thank God for all of you, all of you). I see travel in my future, I see happy time with friends, I see babysitting of Oliver and Lucy, I see celebrating birthdays together, I see all that. And all that matters, it does. It’s not disappeared by the depression, it’s there, it just feels muted by the heaviness of the world that’s coming. And so this is another kind of depression to add to my taxonomy: the extremely realistic kind that’s due entirely to the world. I do not feel suicidal or in any kind of danger beyond the kind my government is about to cause, it’s not that kind of depression. Goddamn. Help me Jesus. Help us all.

“Gooseneck barnacles,” photograph by @fifi_dob

2) It is such a weird, weird world. You know how much I depend on every single person I know? Instagram keeps me going: I depend on seeing Fiona’s underwater photography every single day, depend on it. Mary’s shots of the beaches around Sydney. Judi’s gorgeous sunrises and sunsets when she is in Lorne, and the various amazing birds she sees. Friends who travel? I live for your pictures — Mary’s in South Africa right now, Leanne is showing her sons a glorious white Christmas in Europe, Alison is usually off to somewhere I want to see. Megan always has some kind of lush delight for the eye and spirit, whether it’s her extraordinary shots of flowers or the art she makes. Who knew how important an app could be, how invaluable to my daily life could be people I have not yet met. I depend on you, every day. You have a very real spot in the hours of my day, in my anticipation, in my making-it-through. (And it must be said that it’s not just your photos, it’s the real, and very personal kindnesses you show me regularly, the way you are so open with me, the way you share in my life, too.)

I depend on a close watch on politics by my friends Cindy, and Don Ray, and Tina, and Matt, and Margie, and Debra, and Anne, and all of you who are new militants like me. And of course I depend on your communications with me, as we share and worry over the onslaught we’re facing. You help me feel less alone, you help me remember that there are millions of us in this battle.

I depend on people in my real life that I can see in person, regularly (even if not regularly enough), I can’t even name you all because I’m afraid I’ll leave one of you off. I depend on those coffee breaks, those glasses of wine or beer, those dinners or breakfasts, those walks, those hand-clutching conversations. And I depend on the online private communications just as much, whether you are a friend I can see in person, or a friend in another country — the emails, the FB PMs, the texts, the way I can be feeling low and hear a ping and a friend’s note reminds me that I am not sitting alone in the dark. I depend on you more than you could ever imagine. Ever. You give me so much more than I ever give you. (And while I was writing this, *ping* came a note of big love from Dixie, while I was writing a response to one from Alethea. See?)

I depend on my oldest friends, my years-long friends, and friends I’ve just made (a wonder, that, making new friends at 58, especially when they are like long-lost sisters) whether I see you regularly, or not. I really depend on you, and I mean that in a blood-and-bones-and-breath way. I depend on you, I depend on knowing you’re there.

It’s too easy, I think, for us to feel some degree of isolation, and surely we all have those moments—even if they’re brief—of feeling unimportant, or unseen. Unappreciated. Undervalued. So let me tell you: if you were gone, a hole would be blown in my world. You probably wouldn’t think that, but you’d be wrong. My beautiful, beautiful friend Laura in Perth shared this image of a net with me, and let me remind us all that we are connected like a net, we’re each a knot, a nodule, a small thing with arms out to others nearby, and together we are mighty.

3) Even if it’s not your easy style, call a friend sweetheart, or darling. Anne does this and I literally explode in delight, a small fireworks of feeling loved, of feeling special every single time she says it. Give that to someone today.

three things: 12/22/16

1)  I wish I had more time to read. That would really mean there would just have to be more hours in the day, because I already read nearly every waking hour. But one of my most readily touched sources of frustration is just not having enough time to read. The new issue of the New York Review of Books taunts me, every single article headlined on the cover one I feel urgent about reading. Anne Carson’s wondrous book project about the loss of her brother, Nox, singing to me in the late hours as I continue to struggle with my grief about my son. I know I would find understanding there. Drawing books, volumes of poetry, novels that were given to me by friends, books I’ve bought, and then all those I really want to read again. For some reason The Tin Drum has been whispering in my mind’s ear, read me again. The little girl I was still lives in me, the one who identified with Jo March, sitting in her attic window with a book and a bowl of apples, whiling away a winter day. How I would love to do that.

my coffee table — and then piles everywhere else, too, by the bed, on the nightstand, next to the chair, in the yoga room….

We who need to read are probably mysterious to those who don’t. I’ve heard what they sometimes say about us — get your nose out of that book. I prefer to actually live my life. Jerks, those who say those kinds of things. I’m not quite sure why I have such a never-quenched need to read, but I do.

2) If I think abstractly about what I think equals a “good life,” I’d say that [for me] it would require people to love, and be loved by — family (born into or made) and friends. It would require a home of some kind, whatever that might mean. Easy pleasures, like making good food. Reading (see above) wonderful books, stories, poetry, sense-making of all kinds. Music, and art. I’d say it would involve exposure to the world in whatever way that would be possible, traveling if that’s available. I’d say a good life would require history with people, so sticking it out over the long haul. I’d say a good life would require openness to the world, and a willingness to be present to whatever it presents. I have a good life. What would you add to my list?

3) A poem for the just-passed winter solstice, and for you:

The Shortest Day, by Susan Cooper

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

Anselm Kiefer, Gescheiterte Hoffnung (C.D. Friedrich), 2010, Charcoal on photographic paper. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York. Text on the work is translated as follows: “Wreck of Hope.”

three things: 12-17-16

1)  I had the strangest experience last night — maybe it was the Indian food I had for dinner with my friend Lynn and her boyfriend David. I had a very unsettling dream that took place in LA, and while I remember it clearly, I cannot tell what it was about. I can’t narrate it, but in my memory I know everything that happened. I know what the setting looked like, I know what the rooms were like, I know what the view was like. I’m a little less clear about exactly what was happening, though I know what the feelings were, and I know the various people (strangers to me) who were there. But I can’t tell the dream, at all. I can’t even tell anything about it, like “we were at a party” (it wasn’t that….). And throughout the dream, I’d come up to slight consciousness and find myself in odd places in the bed. Once I was sideways at the very bottom of the bed. Once I was curled up in the top left corner. Once I was spreadeagled on a diagonal. And throughout all that, the odd, unsettling dream kept unfurling. That I cannot narrate today. Have you ever had this experience?

2)  Last night I was driving in heavy traffic, listening to Dwight Yoakum on Fresh Air. I used to really enjoy his music, back in the 1990s, so it was a lovely distraction. At one point in the interview he talked about growing up in the Church of Christ — as did I — and he talked about the music, which was always sung without instruments. Old country hymns, mountain hymns, he said, coming from Scot and Welsh miners. Terry Gross asked if he’d sing his favorite hymn, and I sat forward a little, because I always love those old hymns. I imagined he would sing one I didn’t know, but in fact he sang one of my favorites. And as he sang, I just cried and cried and cried. Here it is, he sang it at Buck Owens’ funeral:

When I was a little girl, we went to church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. (Hard to process, given the things that were happening to us in our home.) But oh how I loved that music, the very specific harmonies, the melodies, the aching, longing words. All the way to my friend’s house last night I sang that song and cried, and wondered why. I’m not religious. I don’t feel like God walks with me and talks with me. I don’t feel like I am his own. But I do connect to that deep, aching longing for such a thing. I do. And I’m sure it’s wrapped up in my child’s longing for a father who didn’t hurt me, too, and a little girl’s desperate wish to be loved. But oh, that music. The interview is quite wonderful; he’s a very thoughtful person, and I enjoyed it so much. Here, if you want to take a listen:

When we were little girls, my sister and I played two games: secretary, and church. She always got to be the secretary and I always had to be the boss (and “got to” and “had to” are important there — the secretary was the desired job). But the way we played church makes me laugh, now. We would sit facing each other on hard metal chairs, and we’d have a saltine and a tiny glass of grape juice. One of us would pinch a small corner off the saltine, place it in our mouth while looking as miserable as possible, and then pass it to the other. If we didn’t look as miserable as we possibly could, we weren’t playing church, we were just eating a cracker. That pretty much sums up my experience of the Church of Christ. The sermons were about how worthless we were, and how there was no redemption for us, and the songs were dirge-like (but with beautiful harmonies). There were no cushions on the wooden pews, no stained glass, no decorations, because those were not in the Bible and “thou shalt not add to nor take away from the Word of the Lord.” (But we did have air conditioning, which I’m pretty sure was not in the Word of the Lord.) Just as Yoakum said, those years spent in the Church of Christ had an indelible effect on who I am, though I don’t go to church, as he doesn’t.

3)  What’s the best book you read this year? I read so many good ones, and found two new writers I adore (Vivian Gornick and Lidia Yuknavitch, and I note with interest that now I’m reading primarily women writers, which wasn’t true a few years ago, when I realized I never read women writers and asked for recommendations). But if I were forced for some reason to pick only one favorite, I would pick The Vegetarian, by Han Kang. Here is my Goodreads review, and here are a couple of lines I loved from the book, to give you a feeling for the prose:

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

“Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, In-hye could see that the role that she had adopted back then of the hard-working, self-sacrificing eldest daughter had been a sign not of maturity but of cowardice. It had been a survival tactic.”

“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her successes had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely. She didn’t understand why, but faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.”

The first time I read it, when I finished reading I just turned back to the beginning and read it again, start to finish. About a week later I read it again, and then I read it again a few weeks later, with two friends. It won the Booker Prize, and it’s on the NYTimes’ Notable Books of 2016 list. I’m re-reading Loitering right now and finishing the collection of Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories, but when I finish one of those I just might have to read The Vegetarian again. Did you read a book you loved this much in 2016?

five things: 12-16-16

    1. just married, and just barely 21

      Thirty-seven years ago today I got married to my first husband. My truest belief that day was that I’d be celebrating this anniversary with him, with whatever family we might create, and that I would be with him until we died. My intention was true and real, and my love for him was true and real and permeated into my marrow, and he was absolutely the right person for who I was then — broken, fragile, scared, in need of safety and care — and still we were just so very wrong for each other in just the right places. We hadn’t been married even a month when I lay awake one night thinking, with a kind of horror, about how much smarter I was than him. And the horror was from being willing to say that about myself, and about having that matter to me. It horrified me, I didn’t want to notice, I didn’t want to care. And honestly, I wouldn’t have, but the dynamics of our relationship (him benevolent father, me fragile child) resulted in his complete inflexibility, he was always right. I feel very sad about it all, sad that we were both edged into the places we were, and I think it definitely changed him. He has always been the kind of person who wanted to save people anyway, but he became too grounded in the paternalistic role. But I never would’ve even gone to college had we stayed married, and I never would’ve found myself. Today I’m thinking about all of that, but I have less than no desire to speak to him; he became a right-wing Tea Party bunker-desiring nut job, not to put too fine a point on it.

    2. I started re-reading Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio’s extraordinary collection of essays. (Here is my GoodReads review.) It circles around twin themes of the difficulty of life (including suicide) and the truth of ambiguity, uncertainty, and the unresolvability of anything approaching “truth” without those elements. I’d never read D’Ambrosio when I heard about the collection, and his is a startling mind. The collection was on sale yesterday, $1.99 Kindle, so I shared that on Facebook and decided to re-read it and it’s as wonderful as I remember. A couple of quotes:

      “The canker of self-consciousness has been long in me, so like a lot of writers I not only do a thing, I see myself doing it too—it’s almost like not being alone. That morning our hero skipped in his skivvies down to the shore of the sea . . . it was dark . . . the fog . . . Storytelling!”

      His childhood was as difficult and violent as mine, and his brother committed suicide (a theme he pokes at throughout the collection); I think this quote alone will tell you why the collection is so powerful to me:

      “If I could intervene and change my own particular history would I alter past events in such a way that I’d bring Danny back to life? Would I return the single rimfire bullet to its quiet chamber in the gun and let the night of November 26, 19__, pass away in sleep and dreams or drink or television or whatever the anonymous bulk of history holds for most people? Would I uncurl the fingers from the grip, would I take away the pain, would I unwrite the note and slip the blank sheet back in the ream and return the ream to pulp and etc., would I exchange my own monstrous father for some kindly sap out of the sitcom tradition, would I do any of this, would I? And where would I be? Would I be there, in the room? Would my role be heroic? And where exactly would I begin digging into the past, making corrections, amending it? How far back do I have to go to undo the whole dark kit and kaboodle? I mean, from where I sit now I can imagine a vast sordid history finally reaching its penultimate unraveled state in the Garden, under the shade of the tree of knowledge, raising the question of whether or not I’d halt the innocent hand, leaving the apple alone, unbitten.

    3. Tonight I’m having dinner with my friend Lynn and her boyfriend because he’s going to backpack around SEAsia for a couple of months and he wants to hear my stories. It’s funny; SEAsia is my very favorite place, and I can’t get back there often enough, but I don’t know that I have stories, and I’m a little anxious about it. I can tell excitedly about the places I’ve been, tell my impressions of the places, but I’m not sure what I will convey except for my enthusiasm for the places. And then I give myself a little shake and remember: Lori. You don’t have to plan out the “successful” conversation in your head ahead of time. You’re seeing friends. You’re eating Indian food. You’re talking about a place you love. Relax. Are you this way?
    4. I want to see Manchester-by-the-Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan. I read a wonderful article about Lonergan that made me want to see it, but then I read a review that bemoaned yet another movie about an emotionally stunted man. Here’s the NYT review, and here’s the trailer, and I want to see it anyway.

5. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where there is little as pleasurable as making a very nice meal for someone I love. Preparing the meal for my poetry group made me SO HAPPY (and it helped that the food all came out the way I wanted it to come out!). It took me a long time to get to this point; while I often enjoyed making meals that my kids enjoyed, and especially making treats for them, the tyranny of dinner-every-night-no-matter-how-I-felt took the joy out of it. I’m making a meal for someone I dearly love next week and the anticipation of that, even the anticipation of planning the menu, is delicious all by itself. Yet another toast to the pleasure of keeping on living.

Happy Friday, everyone. xoxo

apathy is privilege

It’s like a death has happened. Enough people in our country voted in just the right places (note: not the majority of us, though) to elect a demagogue. So the majority of us are grieving, and mourning, and aching, and lost, at the moment. We’ll get ourselves together, we’ll rally, we’ll organize, we’ll work to protect the vulnerable among us . . . unlike the stated plan of the Republicans had they lost, which was to call the election rigged, to fail to concede, to imprison the opponent, to bring out guns and violence. No, instead we will organize and work, once we get through the pain.

But you know, none of whatever Trump does will affect me personally and immediately. I’m white, not a person of color. I was born in this country, and my family has been here for generations. I’m straight. I’m not in the stage of my life where reproduction is a concern. I have a bit of work. I don’t have any family in the military, serving in dangerous places. I’m not disabled. I will be nowhere near our new president so I guess my pussy is safe from him, at least. I don’t have a pre-existing condition that will disallow me from getting health insurance. Of course he will affect me quite personally, down the road, when he ignores climate change, and when he and his Republican Congress gut Social Security, which I’ve been paying into my entire working life and have depended on as a substantial part of my retirement because I am so far from wealthy it’s not funny.

But the part that has me grieving the most is the threat he poses to others, people who just barely have the same rights I have already, and whose rights will probably be snatched away. Marriage equality, for instance. Reproduction rights, already unavailable to most poor women in my own [current] home state of Texas even though they are currently granted by a Supreme Court decision — which I expect they will try to overturn. Gun reform? Forget it, now. Ending Citizens United? No way. And so all the dark money, all the Koch Brothers etc machinations to make the rich even richer and screw everyone else, that will continue on. Giving refuge to immigrants, that ain’t gonna be happening, no way. Climate change? Oh, didn’t you hear that it’s just a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and so no worries, man. Fair treatment for women? Tossed back a decade or two, if not more, because you can bet they’ll post Supreme Court Justices, even though they failed to do their job when Obama was obligated to replace Scalia. The sheer irony I choke on is that everything the far right complains about most, corruption and money in politics that keeps the little guy down, they just voted to ensure.

But you know, I don’t have any money anyway, so whatever. I pay 100% more taxes than our president-elect has paid, and there’s not one thing I can do about it. Not one.

Can I, though, sit in my privilege and just shrug, since I won’t be personally and immediately affected? Because my daily life won’t be impacted. I don’t have to worry that a knock will come on my door, or when I’m moving around in the world. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be brutalized on the street because I’m gay, or brown, or of another religion. I don’t have to worry that some ignorant white thug with a trucker’s cap and an assault rifle, newly emboldened by his president-elect who has championed that violence, will kill me. I don’t have to worry that during a routine traffic stop a cop will kill me and get away with it.

Instead, I have to get up. I have to fight. I have to pick which fights I can engage in, because although I want to engage in all of them, I don’t have the available time that would require, and I’m not in any one place long enough to have a sustained commitment to a local group, in a meaningful way. But I have to fight, however I can. I have to be prepared for trouble, because I also have to speak out when I see something terrible happening, whether it’s a cop harassing a black person, a thug harassing a gay person or couple, or a Muslim, or anyone harassing another woman. I have to be honed and ready, and not be caught off guard. It’s go-time, y’all. It’s get off the Facebook meme and go time. It’s speak-up time. It’s speak-out time. It’s self-defense time. Here is a list of outlets you can study to find when and where you can fight back, if you’re interested.

My friends helped me through the worst of the immediate aftermath, and now I’ve found the little crack where the light is getting in. Let’s hold hands and do this. Let’s remember

John Lewis, who has fought for civil rights relentlessly since the 1960s, slow and steady and never giving up, or giving in.
John Lewis, who has fought for civil rights relentlessly since the 1960s, slow and steady and never giving up, or giving in.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been fighting her whole adult life for women and children, and who simply gets up every single time she is knocked down, and gets back to work.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been fighting her whole adult life for women and children, and who simply gets up every single time she is knocked down, and gets back to work. I admire her for this more than I can ever say.
Martin Luther King, who said "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
Martin Luther King, who said “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Still waiting.
Fred Rogers, who said, “Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Very hard.
Fred Rogers, who said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Very hard.

These people will be my touchstones, my sources of energy and persistence when mine flags, because mine flags too quickly. Help me, let’s help each other, because I meant it when I said with her that we’re stronger together. Let’s make her rallying cry reality — for her, for ourselves, and for everyone else. I’m still with her.

TRUTH

“Leslie Marmon Silko whispers the story is long. No, longer. Longer than that even. Longer than anything. With Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath drink at the bar. Laugh the dark laughter in the dark light. Sing a dark drunken song of men. Make a slurry toast. Rock back and forth, and drink the dark, and bask in the wallow of women knowing what women know. Just for a night. When you need to feel the ground of your life and the heart of the world, there will be a bonfire at the edge of a canyon under a night sky where Joy Harjo will sing your bonesong. Go ahead—with Anne Carson—rebuild the wreckage of a life a word at a time, ignoring grammar and the forms that keep culture humming. Make word war and have it out and settle it, scattering old meanings like hacked to pieces paper doll confetti. The lines that are left … they are awake and growling. With Virginia Woolf there will perhaps be a long walk in a garden or along a shore, perhaps a walk that will last all day. She will put her arm in yours and gaze out. At your backs will be history. In front of you, just the ordinary day, which is of course your entire life. Like language. The small backs of words. Stretching out horizonless. I am in a midnight blue room. A writing room. With a blood red desk. A room with rituals and sanctuaries. I made it for myself. It took me years. I reach down below my desk and pull up a bottle of scotch. Balvenie. 30 year. I pour myself an amber shot. I drink. Warm lips, throat. I close my eyes. I am not Virginia Woolf. But there is a line of hers that keeps me well: Arrange whatever pieces come your way. I am not alone. Whatever else there was or is, writing is with me.” —Lidia Yuknavitch

words

life

This morning I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and was stopped, as I often am, by _nitch. It was this post that caught me by the throat:

David Bowie // “Life. I love life very much indeed.”

A video posted by NITCH (@__nitch) on

“I love life very much indeed,” he says. Something about that specific articulation felt fresh to me, even though the sentiment is familiar and true for me, too. I think I usually say I love my life, or I’m grateful to be alive, truths for me no matter the weather, but to love LIFE very much seems different.

To love my life is to note the personal: my cozy little home, my people, my interests, my longings, my struggles, my thoughts and feelings, the range of my experiences. To be grateful to be alive is to recognize a greater context. There were times I might not have survived, how grateful I am that I did. It automatically places the thought in connection to not-alive.

But to love life very much is notice the miracle and wonder of existence. To love others’ lives. To love the existence of all living things, the wonder of that. To love the persistence of it all despite….despite….despite. To note and appreciate the sheer miracle of consciousness, of birth (despite… despite… despite….), of endurance. To hang on to wonder, to remember to see dandelions forcing their way through sidewalk cracks, clouds drifting in the blue, whales (blue or otherwise) singing through the oceans, friends helping each other along, people helping loved ones live and die, people rallying or disappointing, inspiring or scaring.

What a gift, right? Remember.

I could use your thoughts, please

lidiaSo I was listening to this beautiful short series of free writing lectures by Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the gutting memoir Chronology of WaterHer writing is not like anyone else’s. I hadn’t read any of her books, only short stories here and there, but I had Chronology of Water on my Kindle and after seeing these lecture clips, I decided to read it finally.

W.O.W. I can only read the book in snips and sips, it’s pretty raw and powerful, and quite hard. She does a thing I’d give anything to do, in my own voice. I recommend the book, or anything else she has written.

In one of the lectures she talks about the central importance of our metaphors, and in finding the story underneath the story, and the one underneath that. She said that if you just tell the story you’ve always told, it will be dead, and she provided a really great exercise that I’m dying to try. But in her conversation about metaphor, she said she’d shared an early draft of Chronology of Water with a trusted reader and she asked for deep feedback. Among the feedback, the reader mentioned that Lidia’s central metaphor was water, which she simply had not realized . . . even though a huge part of the story is her early life as an athlete, a competitive swimmer, and her return to swimming, and her feelings of drowning, and on and on and on. Realizing her central metaphor was a crystallizing and powerful thing, not just for her book but for her understanding of herself, and her life.

She said everyone operates with a few metaphors, and she named a couple of others that echo through her stories and her life. I thought it was fascinating that she couldn’t see her own most central metaphor, but at the same time I totally get it. Fish don’t see the water!

I do have a sense of one big metaphor in my life (by which I mean a metaphor that I see in my recurring experiences — it’s my storytelling, not something that exists in a reified way in my life), but I wondered about others. And since sometimes other people can see you more clearly than you see yourself, I thought I’d ask. If you’ve been around the palace for a while, what would you say are my metaphors? I’ll welcome any thoughts you may have.

And if you’re interested in Lidia (an interest that will be so rewarding, you’ll see), here’s her TED talk about being a misfit:

Lidia Yuknavitch: The beauty of being a misfit

To those who feel like they don't belong: there is beauty in being a misfit. Author Lidia Yuknavitch shares her own wayward journey in an intimate recollection of patchwork stories about loss, shame and the slow process of self-acceptance. "Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful," she says.

Thanks, y’all.

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

songs and echoes

I was 21 here, and during all these years I always had my guitar with me
I was 21 here, and during all these years I always had my guitar with me

When I was a young mother, one of my favorite routines centered on my kids’ bedtimes. With three kids and just one of me, time alone with them individually felt so precious. We had regular dates, but I especially loved the tucking-in time — so much that I spent a long time with them, one-on-one. Most nights I took my guitar with me, and after we’d talked about their days and whatever else they wanted to talk about, after we read together, I’d play my guitar and sing to them. I loved it when they’d drift off to sleep while I sang (least often it happened to Katie, who was older and not falling for that). I’d sing softly and watch their little eyes get heavy, watch them resist but see their bodies relaxing, and I’d keep singing long after they seemed asleep. The only thing that helped me get up and leave the room was that the next child was waiting. It was every bit as important to me as I hoped it was to them. But you know, you do all these things with/for your kids and you don’t know, you’re just doing the best you can.

When they were teenagers the tucking-in routine changed, since they didn’t have a ‘bedtime’ exactly, and singing to them dropped away. You know how you wonder if they remember the things you did for them when they were little, and you see so often that they don’t? But it’s OK, because you did it for them, and the memories are in your heart anyway. Even today, when I remember all those hours singing to them, my eyes fill with tears and I get soaked with such deep happiness. Those were some of my best hours of mothering.

Marnie sings to Ilan — who is currently a huge, giggly fan of the ABC song — and said she keeps trying to sing one of the songs I always sang but she can’t do it because she cries. (“Song of Wyoming,” John Denver, which is one of my very favorites and lovely as a lullaby. I can’t play and sing it without crying now either, it’s so tinged with those sweet memories.) I get to hear Marnie’s soft, sweet voice singing to Ilan on the little videos she sends of his delight. Her voice is like mine was, with a soft, feathered edge.

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Katie sings to Oliver, I knew this and have listened to her sing from the very beginning. She has an extraordinary voice, strong but gentle at the same time, and she’s really good. Katie’s specialty is songs from the 60s, music she dearly loves. Oliver has become conditioned to falling asleep to Goodnight Sweetheart (well, it’s time to go / goodnight sweetheart, well, it’s time to go / I hate to leave you but I really must say, oh, goodnight sweetheart, goodnight). Gosh I love hearing her sing that song to him.

And then a couple of nights ago I was at her house, helping with Oliver so she could get some packing done for a week-long road trip they were taking, and I stayed through Oliver’s bedtime. They have the sweetest routine as a family. Katie sits in the chair, Trey lies on the floor, and Oliver plays and wrestles with Trey and climbs into Katie’s lap for some reading, and sometimes he runs in circles to make everyone laugh. And then Katie starts singing — and Oliver dashes over to his bed and crawls up to his pillow and lies down to listen. After the song ends, Katie and Trey kneel by his bed for goodnight kisses. It’s extraordinary.

But I lay on the floor, listening to my beautiful daughter’s exquisite voice singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” that great old Mamas and the Papas song, and just broke down crying. It’s a hard song to sing, an often complex melody line, and then a leap up to a higher range, and some soft scatting at the end, and Katie just flowed through it with all the love she felt, and I felt it too. Trey has a gorgeous voice too, deep and rich, and he joined in, threading harmonies alongside Katie’s melody. What a lucky little boy Oliver is. What lucky boys my grandsons are. Here’s Mama Cass singing — quite a gorgeous song, and she is wonderful — but Katie’s version is even better.

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I sang to my children, and now they sing to theirs. Mamas often do, that wasn’t something original to me obviously, but I’ll take this next-generation singing personally, as a gift I gave them that meant something to them, something they want to give their children, too. Good mamas, love echoes.

my kind of [X]

readerOne of my dear friends was facing a situation that would require a slow recovery, so she asked me and our friends for recommendations of books, television shows, and movies — but of a specific kind. Easy to read, light, the kind that are often (and often unfairly) disparagingly called junk reading, junk TV. She pointedly said, “Not the stuff you read, Lori.” Over time I’ve gotten the reputation for only reading Holocaust or big trauma literary fiction, a category that (I think) is meant more broadly than just those specifics, but definitely with that degree of heaviness. (Although I looked at my Netflix queue and it was one after another Holocaust movie, so hmmmm…..) I enjoy a book that asks something of me, that requires me to participate.

And then another friend recommended a show and in an aside said, “You’ll LOVE it, man. It’s dripping in humanity.” The show was about punishment and retribution and recovery and redemption. My kind of things, my kind of themes.

It isn’t that I’m dismissive of “junk” entertainment, and I’m certainly not judgmental of it. I watch Project Runway, Top Chef, some sit-coms. It’s just that I have so little spare time for entertainment (and not for nothing, I read all day long, almost always stuff I would never ever read of my own volition although sometimes I get the most amazing book/client and that’s a huge gift). So in my rare bit of time for passive entertainment, I want to finally read what I want to read, and what I want to read are stories that grapple with the questions you face in the dark, the situations that harrow you and force you to face yourself, force you to encounter the shadow — either of others, or the world, or yourself. Because I’m always looking for answers! I’m always looking for an articulation of my own shadow, my own experiences. I’m always wanting to better understand people and how they affect and are affected by others and the world. What makes some people turn this way or that, or NOT turn this way or that.

I’m also wanting to be engrossed, enmeshed, and moved in a deep way. My daily life is kind of light; for the most part I sit in my living room, in my chair, reading and working on a client’s book. The ordinary tenor of my life is quiet, solitary, easy, slow. I’m very happy in solitude, it occurred to me again the other day. I was the only person at a wedding alone recently, and I could’ve invited someone to go with me but it never crossed my mind. I enjoy going to movies alone. I enjoy walking alone. I enjoy shopping alone. My days don’t have enough hours for all the ways I want to fill them.

But emotionally my days are just kind of steady and quiet. (YAY!) My life is steady and quiet. (YAY!) So I read or watch something to move my interior, to swim in the vast ocean of human experience. One of the saddest moments — and maybe you know this one too — is when I finish a deeply wonderful book, when I close it and feel so much, and it has left its deep mark on me, and I know it’s going to be hard to find another one that will do that. And sure enough, I try this one (nope!), that one (ugh, no), the next one (maybe…oh, no.) and none are of the same kind.

Although there are some exceptions, most of the books on my “absolute faves” shelf on GoodReads are of this type, and I’m good with that. The only sad thing for me is that I don’t really know other readers who like to read what I do, except for one woman in my book club who chose a book that became one of my favorites (The Orphan Master’s Son, my review on GoodReads here). The specifics of her life mean that she doesn’t have much time to read, though, so I don’t really have someone to share this with and that’s a secondary joy of reading. I do know people whose recommendations usually connect with my interests (Dixie, for instance), but that’s rare.

This is one of the very rare ways I’m lonely, and I am very lonely in this way. If you glance at my “absolute faves” shelf and see yourself there, I’d sure like to know about it.

Happy reading y’all, whatever you read. xoxox

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.

a little tenderness

As we continue to wait for Marnie and Tom’s boy to arrive, I’ve been feeling cracked open with tenderness for her, and for Tom too. My primary focus is on my daughter, if only because of my own experiences of labor and knowing that she will be going through her own version of it and I can’t ease any of it for her.

Every time something generational happens — a birth into our family, obviously, but also celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries — I feel myself in the wheel of time. I experience where I am in that river, on that wheel, in that chain, whatever metaphor makes sense to you. For me, it’s always a wheel for some reason.

Lately, in witnessing the changes happening to my body, such as my hair getting grayer, the underlying muscles softening on my chin and jaw, and the subtler changes that show aging, like changes to teeth, skin, and fingernails, I’ve been seeing my grandmother in me. I’ve always favored her, my father’s mother; I’ve looked like her in the face, my hands are hers exactly, I was always told my legs are like hers. I don’t have pictures of her (but I remember her face and hands SO clearly), except for this one and unfortunately her face is turned away:

L to R: my dad, his mother holding me, and his stepfather
L to R: my dad, his mother holding me, and his stepfather

I love this picture so much because my dad looks uncharacteristically happy, and I feel like I see the person he might have been if his life had been otherwise. It’s no accident his mother was turned with her back to him, but rather a perfect representation of how she treated him, always. I called her Mamo (for non-US southerners, that’s pronounced Mah-maw), but her name was Delma Faye.  And that’s Papo there on the far right — even though he was my dad’s stepfather, I only knew him as my grandfather because he married my grandmother the very same day my parents got married, unbeknownst to either couple. I loved Papo so much; I really lucked out in the grandfather department. He adored me, and always brought me doughnuts, which he called “goldfish” for some unknown and never-asked reason. (Perhaps the origin of my childish passion for doughnuts. 🙂 )

Anyway. I can easily remember Mamo’s hands making biscuits, which were her specialty. Our fingers are long and thin, and our fingernail beds are very short, out on the tips of our fingers. My dad’s hands were the same, he had her hands too, but as I age, and my fingernails get thinner and develop ridges, they look SO much like hers it’s often shocking when I see them. I’ll be making something and my eyes fall on them and I literally feel a shock of both recognition and disbelief.

Her cheekbones, for sure. Her mouth, her teeth, her jawline, her chin. And all mine, too.
Her high cheekbones, for sure. Her mouth, her teeth, her jawline, her chin. And all mine, too.

And as my face softens with age, I look so much more like her, especially in the mouth and jaw, and it frequently takes me back. I’m turning into her, physically, and it really does take me by surprise even though it shouldn’t, since I’ve always favored her.

But maybe it’s striking me harder because my role as a grandmother is becoming fuller, and a bigger part of my life. Soon another little boy will call me Pete, the name that links me back to my own grandfather Big Daddy, and I’m looking more and more like my grandmother. And so I feel the wheel turning, and I feel deep tenderness for myself. I hope when my grandsons remember my face and hands, they remember them with tenderness too.

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.

3. Love the Questions

rilke

This is topic #3 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honorable (honest) relationships, #2 was about resisting absentminded busyness (experience what is actually happening), and this one is about loving the questions, taking a close read of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. If you aren’t already familiar with Rilke’s poetry, here’s a great starting place.

To begin, here’s the summary on the Brain Pickings post:

“In one of the most potent letters, he writes:

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.


If you aren’t familiar with this short book, Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19-year-old officer cadet at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt, wrote Rilke these 10 letters between 1902 and 1908 seeking his advice as to the quality of his poetry, and his help in deciding between a literary career or a career as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Kappus compiled and published the letters in 1929, three years after Rilke’s death from leukemia. The first letter just asked Rilke’s opinion of the quality of his poetry, but a correspondence developed and Rilke took on the role of lecturing elder, kind of, telling Kappus how to live his life. The specific letter referenced in the Brain Pickings post was written on July 16, 1903. (Here is the pdf file of the whole short book I found online, if you want it; this letter begins on p13.)

Actually, for the first time I would have to agree with her summary, if only because it’s a short letter and this is its primary point. It’s a point Rilke makes again and again in other letters, though, in slightly different ways. He writes at length about the importance of patience, not just for the purpose of writing poetry but in a bigger way, to discover your own depths and learn what you think and desire, who you are. With this kind of patience, he believes you should not race to find concrete answers, and in fact you should not even have concrete answers as a goal in any way. It’s the openness of the question itself that matters; it’s the realization that the question itself is the point, not its answer; it’s the understanding that one must live those questions to find their answers. It’s not just a cerebral exercise.

What does this mean, really? I like the sound of it and agree in the abstract, but to do something with it I need to bring it into my own real life and not just let it hang in a handwaving kind of way. So I start with a basic question:

  • Who am I? AH, OK, I get it. In my life I have raced toward concrete answers again and again. This is who I am. No, this. Wait, yeah, that was right. Well, kind of. OK, this is who I am. I am this and definitely not that. Well, sometimes I am. Actually, I’ve been very wrong about myself all along! (That list of statements characterizes at least a quarter of my blog posts over the years.) Assuming there exists a concrete answer or set of answers relies on an assumption that ‘who I am’ is unchanging and entirely knowable, and consistent across time and space. Of course none of that is wholly true! I’d like to say that there are essential aspects of myself that are unchanging and entirely knowable and consistent across time and space, but as I sit and think about that, I can’t find a single one. So to give up on the answer and to love and live the question is to embrace a spirit of self-compassion and curiosity, I think. If I love the question ‘who am i?’ — and note that he says love the question, not ask the question — then I remain open to whatever answer emerges and grow into an ease with it, live with it. And then, I suppose, there lives his possibility of “gradually, without even noticing it, [living my] way into the answer.” One thing I love about this is that there’s a grace to it.
  • What do I want to do? Loving the question means I allow myself the time and exploration to find my way to something that will be meaningful, and kind of necessarily so because I’m open along the way and don’t stop with a concrete answer that is meaningless. Right? Is that right? I think so.

Thinking about specific questions I ask myself again and again gives me a way into Rilke’s advice, and I see a way this approach goes with the Kierkegaard (#2, Resist absentminded busyness/Experience what is actually happening). Both involve a recognition of and openness to the complexity of things, the complexity of the world, the complexity of experience, the complexity of self. And not just an openness to it, but an embracing of it. Rilke adds the necessity of patience, and for me anyway, that’s a critical piece. Love the questions, yes, and be patient with that love. And that reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

In my literal-minded way, I’d only thought about those sentences in terms of interpersonal love — wife and husband, parents with children — but it goes so beautifully with Rilke’s thoughts in the way that most of the old philosophies of life say essentially the same things.

Live the questions. Love the questions. Eventually you might live your way into the answers. It’s such a different approach than my life-long approach, and I think it’s also different from the typical fast-driving, answer-demanding Western view.

So to date, I guess I’d reword the three ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about like this:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships
  2. Experience what is actually happening
  3. Be patient, and live and love the questions

And now I’m off to topic #4, pay attention to the world, which relies on an essay from Susan Sontag’s anthology At the Same TimeI expect dense reading, unlike the Rilke, but luckily I’m OK with that.

xo

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.

resolutions

I know, I know — I said I don’t make resolutions. And I don’t! I used to, and they all (no matter how I worded them) involved losing weight. I quit that one a few years ago and mysteriously(?) I lost all the weight I’ve ever wanted to lose and so far I’ve kept it off so easily for 18 months-ish. Curiouser and curiouser.

I look forward to the topic for this book, which is "Use discipline to catalyze creative magic."
I look forward to the topic for this book, which is “Use discipline to catalyze creative magic.”

BUT I do like to think about life and how I live it, and I do have some beliefs and values that I’ve already thought about a lot and others I want to think about more deeply. And then along comes this fabulous post on the also-fabulous Brain Pickings and thus a project was born. I’ve put the project up in the menu bar (see it up there? 2016?) for my own quick and easy reference. There I’ve listed all 16 of the resolutions, and for each one I linked it to the relevant book. Some of the books I’ve already read but I’ll read again, some are pretty quick, and some will be very slow (the Sontag and the Nussbaum in particular, though in those cases I’ll probably just read the relevant chapter and others that grab me).

My plan is to do this as a year-long reading and thinking project, and at the completion of each topic I’ll write a post about it integrating my own thoughts with those I’ve just studied, and if I find other relevant books and resources I’ll link them in that post too. Of course I read a whole lot already and have a couple of book clubs to read for so this will be a challenge, but what is a challenge if it isn’t a challenge! On the project page I’ll also link to my post on the topic.

Since I’m getting started late I’ll have to hustle, so I’m off to Resolution #1: Cultivate honorable relationships, which centers on Adrienne Rich’s collection of poems titled On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Yesterday I babysat Oliver all afternoon and while he slept I started reading. Hmmm. Lots to think about. xoxoxox

funky little heart/sweet little heart

It makes so much sense for our bodies to hold our hurts and experiences. How could it not — there’s no separation, even though some people talk as if mind and body are different things. My body has been through all the moments and events of my life, and my emotions have been felt by my body as physical, visceral things. I also know that experiences can be associated with specific physical consequences in a heartbreakingly (I’ll come back to that) metaphorical way. Women who have experienced sexual trauma are significantly more likely to experience IBS and cancers of the pelvic region. (Be careful: that doesn’t mean that someone who has IBS was necessarily sexually traumatized.) How profoundly apt and sad that a woman who already had to endure trauma in that part of her body then also has to experience something else terrible in a linked way. If I were Queen of the Universe, instead of just Queen of the Pillbugs, this whole deal would run very differently. As the benevolent queen I’ve always been, I would issue an edict: You were already hurt there, you don’t have to be hurt there ever again.

heartAnd so to me, the author of this blog. I can never talk about this without crying, but it is such a part of my life and has been since I was a little girl. My heart hurts, a lot. It gives me crushing pain, searing pain, penetrating pain. I have felt like I was impaled through my heart, for weeks after my father’s suicide. Surprisingly, I have had no trouble in my pelvic region, though the association would suggest I should; instead, I have these heart troubles.

A friend of mine had a heart transplant after his otherwise-perfectly healthy heart was attacked by a virus, so he has thought a lot about the metaphor of illness and heart, and he and I talked about it for so many hours when we were both in graduate school. It’s so poignant and evocative, and after talking about it with my friend, I realized that getting a donor’s heart is orders of magnitude different from getting a donor’s kidney or corneas, and not just because the donor always must die first. Always. Every time. That’s likely true with corneas too, but I’m unaware of any deep association with corneas, as fabulous and desirable as they are.

But a change of heart, wow. And heartache, not just a word or idea, literal heart ache. Pain, real pain in the chest where the heart is. And broken heart, how that hurts. Some broken hearts feel like you truly might not survive. Sometimes it really mimics a full-blown heart attack (Takotsuba cardiomyopathy, “broken-heart syndrome;” with immediate treatment, most people survive with no long-term damage). (If you, like me, enjoy this kind of thing, you may enjoy this academic article analyzing cross-cultural heart metaphors.)

And so my heart hurts, a lot. And frequently. I have a slightly insufficient aorta (not enough to be worried about, just monitored, and it doesn’t hurt at all; the only problem is that I feel insulted by being insufficient 😉 ). I also have this thing called paroxysmal tachycardia, diagnosed for me in Manhattan, and while it’s horrible to experience, it’s perfectly harmless. It doesn’t even have a long-term effect on the heart. Basically, I will just be doing something ordinary (sitting my chair, for example, or cooking) and all of a sudden my heart jumps to an extremely fast rate — it can go up to 220, but mine usually jumps to 160-180. It stops as suddenly as it starts, and can last from minutes to hours. There are different types, as a function of where it originates, but here’s the wiki page for the ventricular type. There’s a way to stop it (you hold your breath and bear down), but it leaves me feeling terrible, with a headache, with exhaustion, with a feeling of breathlessness. It seems to happen to me in big clumps, and I’m in one now so that sucks. SUCKS. When the first person arrived at poetry group Tuesday night, she looked at me and gasped, and asked what was wrong and said I looked pale and drawn. I’m telling you, it sucks.

Aside from the physical consequences, it also makes me feel like my heart is broken. It leaves me feeling the same pain I felt so many times when I was growing up, and those times were always while something terrible was happening, or had happened, so the feeling drags those associations along, even though I know that’s all old news and don’t even have to remind myself of that. So I’m left with a headache, a slightly elevated heart rate, and a reminder of old feelings. Sucks. Not good at all.

Of course I could be wrong, but I think if all this stuff was going on with my knee, it would be a very different experience. It’s definitely something about the heart, and all that signifies and carries. In New York I had one of the most wonderful doctors I’ve ever had, and once while I was lying on the table during an exam, after a bunch of cardiac tests, she looked down at me with soft eyes and stroked a clump of hair off my forehead and said, gently, “You have a broken heart, I know.” It was the most loving and maternal action that I’ve ever experienced. After palpating my abdomen, she stopped and did it more carefully and then turned to me with moist eyes: “You were kicked in the stomach a lot, weren’t you.” She was truly extraordinary, and I still can’t believe that I got to have her for my doctor.

I will be so glad when all this stops, which it will. Each instance stops, and the run of it will stop. And I am fine, and will be fine, and in my life I have had a terribly broken heart, even if it’s not broken now. Funky little heart, sweet and beautiful little heart, holder of so much.

xo