What is it I need?

If you are my Facebook friend, you’re probably at least aware that I’ve been doing little “creekside chat” videos every morning, whether you watch them or not. I started making the little videos for a few reasons:

See what I mean? This is the view from my kitchen window. WOW.
  • My new home is so very beautiful and most of the time I’m here alone and really just want to share it! I sit on my little bench and look around, wishing I could say to someone, “Look at that! Isn’t that amazing!”
  • My friend in NZ, Kirsten Duncan, said something to me that hit me right in the most vulnerable spot I might have — and I mean that she hit me with love, and started the process of changing something for me. My whole life I’ve been so ashamed of my mouth and teeth and she said, in passing, that she loved to watch my mouth move, and friends in Oz and NZ always say they love my accent — so that’s a twosome that wrapped love around the things I feel most vulnerable about. I first just made a tiny video sitting in the car waiting for Marc one Saturday, and their comments were so loving and encouraging that I got the idea to do more of them. They began as an exercise in courage and vulnerability and forcing myself out of that little shame prison.
  • Starting my day saying hi to the people I have in mind when I’m talking has just been the best gift. Whether they watch (happen to watch a specific day, or watch at all) isn’t even really the point. The point for me is that I’m seeing their faces when I talk to my phone, even though the literal face on the screen is my own, and so I get to speak directly to people I love, and share my place with them.
my humble little bench, where I sit by Hatchery Hollow Creek and record the chats

I generally keep the videos at five minutes or less, because it feels silly and self-indulgent to just ramble on and on and on – and since I’m just talking extemporaneously, talking for longer than that doesn’t even really feel possible! Most days I don’t have the first clue what I’ll say, when I’m approaching my bench — I know I’ll start with good morning, but then the rest is a mystery to me.

SO what has surprised me so much is how deeply those brief chats have satisfied my need to talk. I think this is why I haven’t been writing here — I already said what I had to say, and after that I’m content to be here in silence, happily alone with my thoughts. Who’d have thought? Who’d have thought that talking to myself out loud — with an assumed Other — for such a short time is really all I need?

My first husband, Jerry, was/is an almost completely silent man, and not emotionally expressive (at all) and also not very affectionate or connecting. I know I’ve told this story before but it’s so heart-breaking; I told him once that I knew he could be affectionate, I’d seen him do that with the dog. He told me that the dog didn’t demand it, and then later that he could be that way with the kids because they did demand it. It was so lonely living with him. Another time he said there was no point in trying to be that way with me because I was just a bottomless pit, and however much he might give would never be enough anyway. I still wince at the cruelty of that comment. But it turned out that my needs really aren’t that big — maybe I learned to thrive on just a little — and this talking thing is another one like that.

I have the most loving, generous, encouraging people in my life. Dear Mudd has suggested that I create a YouTube channel for the chats, and that’s on my list — in that case I could add them here. At the moment I have plenty of work, and as a starving freelancer, work takes precedence over everything else when it’s available. If you follow this blog and are on FB, but aren’t yet my FB friend, click this link and then send me a friend request! At this point, my feed is generally photography, poetry, stuff about books, stuff about my grandkids, and these little daily chats. I had to stop posting about politics (though I slip once in a while, increasingly rare though) because it was keeping me too angry. So I hope my feed is mostly about beauty, and my little daily visits with my friends.

I’m not saying I’m abandoning this blog — perhaps I’m just in a fallow period, as happens to all of us who blog. This is just a little note of explanation, and a waving to you. <3

You Can’t Escape from What You Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

blanking

It’s happening so fast I can see it, hear it, observe it. I’m losing words. The worst of it is my inability to speak fluidly, to simply say what I want to say. I’ll be shooting a little video to share with my daughters, standing at the closeby creek, and the many long, long pauses are increasingly common as I hit a blank wall. The most frustrating part is that I can’t get the simple words, like ‘pool.’ “And this . . . um . . . this is a well . . . um . . . still area.” Only more frustrating than that, even, is my inability to speak around the lost word, to find synonyms or descriptions or definitions. I usually can’t even get close, as ‘still area’ is close to ‘pool’ in the context of a flowing creek.

For example. Our well water is so gross — sulfur-smelling, and so full of iron it turns the toilet bowls dark gray-brown — and it also leaves a film on things as it dries. The dishes I wash so thoroughly, that are so clean when I put them in the dish drainer, look awful when they dry. There’s a film on them, and that word ‘film’ was impossible for me to find the other night. I was telling Marc how the floors looked after I finished scrubbing them on my hands and knees three times, and then after a final sponge mop, and simply could not find the word film. Nor could I tell him in any other way what I meant. “So the floors are very clean, but there’s a . . . you know, the water . . . you know, how when it dries?” He tried to fill in for me, “Did the water damage the wood floor? Is it stained?” And I couldn’t even approach my meaning. I said, “There’s a specific word for this, never mind never mind.” This morning I tried to explain something about my big camera on the tripod and couldn’t. Couldn’t even talk around it.

This has been happening for a very long time, but it is getting so much worse. I’m losing my ability to be articulate in speech, and I can’t tell you how painful that is, because being articulate has been one of my self-defining characteristics. It’s the aspect of myself I most enjoy, the aspect that feels most me to me. I can still be articulate when I write, thank heavens, but that’s because I can hit a missing word and pause, go searching for it through Google searches, let it be with an XX placeholder and come back later — strategies that you can’t do when you’re speaking.

And it makes me both scared and frustrated, so I get angry in the moment. I’m angry at myself, at the situation, at this roadblock, but the person to whom I’m speaking only sees the anger, the short temper, the flare. Usually this is Marc who bears the brunt. I feel for him. I try to be mild and compassionate with myself about it, and I’m reassured to feel like I’m still fully there, it’s just that I can’t get words — I’m not feeling like my self is disappearing, I have full connection to my own experiences, my memories, my presence, and I know what it is I want to say in its fullness, in its clear and specific articulation, I just lose the words I want when I try to produce them. Too often I just give up before I even start, I don’t try to explain anything that’s at all complex, like the way the lever on the ball and socket head joint on my tripod doesn’t close tightly enough to hold the camera at a 45-degree angle anymore. Or the way there is a film on the clean floor so it doesn’t look clean, but it is.

This loss is gutting, and just so very personal. I’ve always said that if a terrible accident befell me and I was confined to a chair, that wouldn’t be awful at all. Athleticism, or even physical activity, is not central to my identity, it’s not at all an important element of what makes my life worth living, or enjoyable. But verbal acuity is, for me. Incisive expression is, for me. My thoughts can be quite complex, and my emotional understanding is layered and intricate, and being able to give voice to that has always given me such a thrill, such pleasure. I love words. I’m just so verbal, it’s where my intelligence lies. I don’t have other forms of intelligence, but this is mine, and it always has been. I scored at the 99th percentile on the verbal section of the GRE, and wasn’t even surprised by that. This is my little pocket of gift. It’s all there, in my mind, and I can easily access it except in speech production. So that’s at least a reassuring feeling, even if it adds to my frustration: I’m still here. It’s all still there.

OK, I’m going in.

“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.” —Han Kang, The Vegetarian

Wednesday and Thursday are supposed to be beautiful days — no rain, partly sky, and 76 degrees.  We have the new carpet upstairs and the world seems beautiful and full of possibilities; it’s funny how getting rid of something that’s just so gross and smelly makes everything else feel better. (I mean, we knew it was gross and that it stank, but when they dragged the old carpet out, Marc went outside to get something and saw that flies were swarming it.)

not my yard, but my neighborhood — I’ll probably walk here

So I’m going to do what I’ve been thinking of doing. I’m going to step into the world and just live, just be present to myself, with myself, to the world, just for those two days. Today I will run errands, finish a manuscript evaluation and get it off to my client, do some housework, and make myself a good dinner and do some deep yoga. Prep work, of a sort. And then Wednesday and Thursday I’m just me. I’m silent. I’m here and not anywhere else, and alone. Not online. No sharing a beautiful photo, no sharing a passage from a favorite book, or a poem.

That’s a lot of ‘not’s. Here’s a list of the ‘yes please’s:

  • yoga
  • sitting by the creek, maybe drawing maybe not
  • walking in the woods — mine, and nearby
  • reading, with a notepad by my side (my new book of poetry will arrive Wednesday, Hard Child by Natalie Shapero, reviewed here in The Rumpus) (I’ll also probably read some Anne Carson)
  • lots of sitting and staring, and spending as much of the day outside as possible
  • pushing myself outside after dark, even just in a chair in my front yard, staring at the sky
  • writing by hand, off my computer — not just to keep myself away from online, but also to connect to slow me
  • knitting
autumn is in the air

No Netflix (/Amazon/Acorn). No music, except maybe meditation music, chanting, or nature sounds. So nothing with lyrics, really. I want to be in quiet, in silence, so I can hear myself. Quakers sit in “gathered silence” together because they say you can’t hear God amid the noise. I am not imagining I’ll hear God — wouldn’t know what that would be like anyway — but I am imagining I’ll hear myself a little more clearly without all the distractions I hurl in my way.

I won’t post here during the next two days, and I won’t be on Facebook or Instagram. I’m a little anxious, to be honest, because I’ll have to face whatever anxiety I come up against by just being present with it. I won’t have the agita inflamed by being online and seeing/engaging with everything that our government is doing (and not doing) in the world, but I also won’t have the distraction of “just hopping on.” No pretty pictures, no smiling faces of friends around the world, just me. I wonder how it’ll be. I imagine it will be everything at some point.

But at least it will be happening on lovely new carpeting. Ciao, friends. Back on Friday. xoxox

Thoreau

WHY is it so hard to be me. I wonder this all the time. I halfway (quarter-way) long to be a light, easygoing person, what you see is what you get, only walking on the sunny side (ugh, no, I actually detest that, it would be my worst personal nightmare) — but I do wish on occasion to be an easier person. Most of the time I like the complexity of being who I am, but sometimes I wish I were easier.

this was NOT my poster, but the spirit is the same

In the spirit of my last two posts, I’m remembering that old poster I had on my bedroom wall as a near-teen — the image was so green, a deep forest with a shaft of light piercing through, and superimposed (these were the pre-meme days of the 1970s) was a quote, either Thoreau or the Desiderata, I don’t remember for sure, but I do also remember reading Walden and thinking how swell that would be to go into the wild and confront myself, to confront the bareness of life, to learn whatever that might teach me.

And here comes the complexity, the wish that I were a simpler person. I’m feeling that longing quite intensely, thinking about stepping off the earth, off the public presentation of self, and just being here. Just being here in the wild, lonely solitude of Heaventree… and yet I have to wonder and worry about that, because I know me and my history. Is this impulse a sign? Is this a withdrawing impulse that connects to something darker? I don’t think so, I don’t feel that at all, but I have to ask myself that question. I have to answer that question for people who love me. Are you OK, Lori? (How is mom? Have you talked to her? How are you, mama?) How is it inside you? Are you OK? Really?

That’s my post office. I live 1.5 miles up the road to the left, up the mountain. The white car is Brandon’s. Tammy delivers the mail, but not to me.

Marnie and I talked the other day, and I was telling her about the adjustment, about how inconvenient rural life can be. How Brandon is at the post office between 8 and 10, and then between 3 and 5, and that’s it. How I’d gone to the post office at 2 expecting no mail but just wanting to get out, and found a notice that I had a package, so I had to go home and then return at 3, and when I did, there was a handscrawled note: “In the bathroom, back in 5 minutes.” And so I waited in silence for Brandon, and when I saw him it was notable to be having a conversation with a person. (And I talk to Marc every day on the phone, and text my daughters throughout the days, but a real in-person conversation has become extremely rare.) I went to the Pine Hill library the other day to pick up my library card, and their website said they were open at 2 on that day of the week, but when I got there, a sign said, “Hey! We’ve changed our hours, now we open at 3. Join us for knitting the 1st and 3rd Thursday of the month, Tina will be here!” True rural life is solitary and inconvenient and dependent on how other people happen to be feeling, whether they’ll be there as advertised . . . or not. And so my one chance to talk to a living person is set aside for the next day. Maybe.

So I gradually become more accustomed to my own company, for days at a time — and I like my own company, thank heavens I learned that in Austin — and I begin to wonder what I might learn, left alone with my thoughts and with the forest. I wonder. I wonder the shape of my heart. I wonder the shape of my mind, my want, my need. When I am fully alone, in silence, whether walking or driving, I begin again to recognize my own mind. I have my own thoughts, my own imagery, my own landscape that’s just nearly unrecognizable, because it’s unlanguaged. And I am so very, very languaged.

Social psychology, my own subdiscipline, takes as its starting point that our very SELVES are social even if the ‘other’ is only implied and not present. That without others, there simply is no self. And so I think about that, not just from an academic perspective but from within my own solitary self, here on the side of a mountain, deep in a valley in the lonesome old Catskills. Who am I without others? Am I, without others? What is that, who is that? I spent my second summer of graduate school reading philosophy of self, and while I began that summer with an almost irrationally angry defense (“Of course there is a self, who do you think is even asking the question?!” I’d say, usually suddenly and mysteriously on my feet and with a red-flushed throat), by the end of that summer academic philosophy had done its thing, and I no longer even understood the terms of the question. Self? What is that, really? Me? Who am I, really?

To summon but shift Prufrock, I wonder: Do I dare?

Performing a Life

I read a great article about Aziz Ansari and his recent abandoning of all things social media. The main reason I read the article is that I am thinking about something similar, about stepping off of that platform, that host of platforms, because I’ve begun to think about how we perform our lives instead of living our lives.

Well, instead of saying we, let me say I. And instead of just throwing out the phrase “performing my life” let me speak with a little more complexity about it, because I do think with complexity about this, all the time. I’m always bewildered by people who apparently think that the lives they see on social media represent real life — that other people always have it together, always have Pinterest-ready food, and magazine-worthy interiors, and happy-memory-prepped experiences. Really? And yet people do seem to think that, despite how mysterious that is to me. And I try hard to be as honest in my representation as I can be, without (a) being gross, (b) betraying the lives and privacy of others, and (c) committing unnecessary self-flagellation. Still, even with those cautions in mind all the time, I recognize the way later presentation has infiltrated my in-the-moment experience of things. When we were hiking around Belleayre Mountain last weekend, scouting a place to watch the Perseid shower in a few days, as I looked at the flowers I wasn’t really seeing the flowers. I was seeing whether they would make a good picture. To share.

These plants become more than yellow flowers and white fluff, they become evidence of the summer coming to an end.

And the complexity is this: by taking photographs, I have become a keener observer. I see more things than I did before I started taking pictures. By writing so often, I observe more closely. I take in material through a storytelling lens — that hike isn’t just walking over rocks and crossing creeks, it’s an adventure, the shape of which will be determined by how it ends, which will become a part of the story’s beginning lines in some way. By observing as a storyteller, the experience gets a kind of form it might not otherwise have. I love the way taking pictures and writing has made me a better observer, a better watcher, a better listener.

But it’s that add-on that makes a difference — not just “would that make a good picture” but “would that make a good picture to share.” And that shift takes me to performing a life in some different way. I do love to share things I see, and especially since I am alone so much at Heaventree, having a place to say, “Look! Look at this, isn’t it beautiful?” is a nice counter to my solitude, while still allowing me the solitude. And frankly, it’s a different experience now that I am in an entirely new place, in an entirely rural, lonely place, and without real people [yet] to spend time with. Withdrawing from social media in my Austin life would’ve been very different than doing it now, where it might be filling an important need in my transition away from such a social life.

Needing to withdraw from the political discourse has also shifted my experience of social platforms, moving me a little more towards Instagram than Facebook. I notice a shift in my state when I have to read more than a couple posts about the Republican nightmare we are trapped in, but by the time I feel that and close FB or IG, I already feel terrible. It’s too late by the time I feel that first punch. So I’ve pulled away from the same kind of participation in Facebook that I used to have, already. This month I’m participating in Susannah Conway’s August Break 2017 Instagram project, which is dedicated to paying close visual attention to the world via a daily prompt — yesterday it was “my eyes” — and that’s fun but not deeply meaningful to me.

And so I am thinking hard about how to do this so I still get the parts I need, which are (a) local news and events, and (b) the maintenance of connection with friends all over the world. I don’t know how I’ll do that; perhaps with a FB list of local news pages and the people I really count as friends, and a quick once-a-day jump on and jump off? Or maybe I simply need to pull the bandage off with a quick, hard rip. Another possibility is to take a hiatus, maybe start with one week and then take a month. Whatever I do, I will continue to write here, I know that. That presents a lopsided dilemma: I share myself with you, but don’t have the same opportunity to learn how you are doing, and that’s very important to me too. I always invite a conversation on my posts, and welcome whatever you have to say, to share, but it’s not your platform and you don’t know the other readers, the way I do.

Hmmm. Seeking.

DANG IT.

“It was through the discovery and exploration of the unconscious that Freud made his major discoveries, chief among them that from birth to death we are, every last one of us, divided against ourselves. We both want to grow up and don’t want to grow up; we hunger for sexual pleasure, we dread sexual pleasure; we hate our own aggressions–anger, cruelty, the need to humiliate–yet they derive from the grievances we are least willing to part with. Our very suffering is a source of both pain and reassurance. What Freud found most difficult to cure in his patients was the resistance to being cured.
Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments

So last night I was on my yoga mat. (Yay! I did it!) It had been a very busy day, including an unexpected trip to Kingston to get something fixed on my car — an hour and a half round trip to Kingston alone — and lots of up and down the stairs to the basement, so instead of taking a vinyasa class, I took a yin class. Lots of quiet, lots of long holds of poses, lots of deep focus. And right there I realized my problem. Dang it.

I don’t actually want to stop being chaotic in my head. I mean, I do of course, I do want that, but unlike the last time, this time I am solely motivated by getting this weight off me. That’s really what I’m doing all this for. The inner chaos is a torment, but this time it’s really just a weight loss strategy with some side benefits I happen also to like. No wonder! No wonder I’m fighting myself with all I have about being mindful. No wonder. I’m doing something I don’t want to do.

And yet I do want it. The essential Freudian dilemma. I am resisting the cure I am desiring.

Now what, Freud? [I insist on leaving out that ‘r’ every time I type his name, so “Feud,” which is surely some kind of Feudian slip, right? 🙂 )

But seriously. Now what? I do want that quiet. I want it. I want the peacefulness I had. I want that centered feeling. Perhaps I’m still too unsettled in my psyche by this relatively dramatic uprooting of myself from suburban Austin and lots of people to a rural place that’s quite gorgeous and also fraught with new challenges to learn about, and no people. Maybe my psyche hasn’t caught up with my body — it’s still en route, maybe somewhere in Virginia, if it took the first route I took in the big truck.

Maybe this is why it’s the change in my body that is satisfying me, and why the change in my mind isn’t happening yet. Does seeing this make it change? IF ONLY. HAHAHAHA. If we could think our way out of problems, change would be easy, as my husband says on his therapy website.

I remember when Jeff, my food coach, said something antithetical to the therapy-focused position I’d held for years: at some point you just have to get off the couch. My tendency here would be to analyze this, to mull it over, Why, Lori, why are you being so resistant? Is it an unwillingness to abandon the political fight? Is it…. BLERGH get off the couch. Shit or get off the pot, as my old grandmother inelegantly said. Do I want to let go of the chaos, really? Then let’s do it.