dealing with there being too much

You know that old saying, “You can never be too thin or too rich?” Assuming both things things are valued as goodhaving more is always preferable. Always. Without even thinking about it, we nod. Oh yes, more please.

I’m thinking about that this morning because in talking to friends earlier today I commented on feeling kind of paralyzed by all this space, all this volume, all this time, all this possibility. At the moment, while we’re fixing up Heaventree and still doing basic move-in, when Marc is here Friday through Monday evenings we are working pretty hard, and non-stop. Around noon on Mondays I start thinking about the coming days, while he’s back in the city — I’m here all by myself, the whole house, the whole outdoors, all the hours, filled with opportunity. I love the solitude, I relish all the moments of silence, the hours spent just with myself. I think,

  • I’ll read and take notes, really engage myself — maybe one of my philosophy books, something that makes me think!
  • I’ll write!
  • I’ll finish knitting my sweater!
  • I’ll unpack two boxes/day!
  • I’ll organize all that fabric and think about a lap quilt to make!
  • I’ll make something for my grandchildren!
  • I’ll spend an hour practicing my banjo!
  • I’ll take my big camera out on a photo walk!
  • I’ll bake bread!
  • I’ll go exploring our property!
  • I’ll take notebooks and a thermos of coffee and sit by the creek, maybe draw!
Whatever you do, do NOT download this free game called 1010!. It is the DEVIL.

And yet you know what I do? I go upstairs, turn on British TV, get out my knitting and then just start playing a game on my phone. I will literally do that for 10 hours. So I’m not even paying attention to the television program. The game can’t be ‘won;’ it’s a Tetris-type of game, so you just play it until there aren’t more plays, however long that takes, in a loop, and then you play it again. The day ends and I feel just awful. Frustrated, worthless, empty, except somehow also full of anguish. I wasted a day! A day of my finite life, and a day so filled with everything wonderful, all the possibilities. It’s not like I had no options. It’s not like I was in a situation that just had to be borne through, like sitting in a hospital waiting room for news. Nope. I had a whole, beautiful, rich day, and more interests than most people, and I squandered it.

Creativity flourishes against constraints — this is the basic idea of all those creative ‘reality’ programs, Top Chef and Project Runway, etc.: sure, if you have a bottomless budget of time and money you can do anything, but what if you have only $50 and an hour, hmmm? Or a tire and a chain, hmmm? I do have plenty of constraints (primarily a scary lack of money), but my musical instruments are sitting right there, and the basement is full of yarn to knit and fabric to sew, and the outdoors is gorgeously just right there, and my camera is in the windowsill, and my books are shelved finally, and I have flour and yeast and my couche. I am so so frustrated with myself.

If you have any suggestions, thoughts, ideas, I would love to hear them. Just going all Nancy Reagan on it — Lori, just say no! — hasn’t been working. This feels ridiculous, I just want to slap myself and say STOP IT! Snap out of it! Just DO something! This ain’t trouble, you want to know what trouble is? OTHER people have real trouble, this is an embarrassment of riches and I am humiliated by my waste. Aaaaargh.

secular prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Sunday, y’all. xoxoxo

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.

an intense attack of sorrow

getting set up. Paper taped on the hardwood floors, cardboard wedged in corners and under windows, and lots of plastic still to be draped over doors and windows. UGH.

Yesterday we spent the entire day painting the downstairs, and it was not at all fun. Zero fun. Poor Marc had spent the day before painting the ceiling, after taping and covering everything; we have pine trim around the doors and windows and we didn’t want to paint it, so not only did we have to tape around it, we then needed to drape plastic over all the window frames so paint wouldn’t drip on them. UGH. Not fun. And he did all the harder work, including doing all the ceilings by himself — all I was doing was rolling paint on the walls! Not one bit of fun. Not even a tiny moment, never. I felt nauseated and I just kept wanting to stop, but of course there was nothing to do but to keep painting. (I’m spending today painting the second coat. All by myself. Boo. Also, boring.)

We had music playing in the background, one of my various playlists (one that was short on disco, since Marc, a teenager in the 1960s, hates it) — that was somehow heavily slanted toward Van Morrison. I don’t even know much of his music, beyond Brown-Eyed Girl (I mean, who doesn’t know that song, right?) and one album called Back On Top. That album was released in March 1999, and that was a very hard time for me. The album has a melancholy tone, lots of songs about sorrow and loss, and it just slipped right into my groove, then. I think (and knowing me, this is right) I listened to it over and over and over. Probably nothing but this (again, knowing me).

So there we were, painting, and there I was, feeling blech, wishing the painting were over, but nothing more than that. If I had to label the general tone of my feelings it’d be irritated or something like that, but definitely not sorrowful. As the eclipse approached its fullest here in the Catskills, and the sky darkened a bit, this Van Morrison song came on: Everything I Do Reminds Me of You (not an exciting video, but you can hear the song).

I don’t know why but I became completely overwhelmed and had to lean over and just sob. Ugly crying, face uncontrollably contorted, no sound because the sobs were just too intense.

I miss you so much, I can’t stand it
Seems like my heart, is breaking in two
My head says no but my soul demands it
Everything I do, reminds me of you

I miss you so much, in this house full of shadows
While the rain keeps pouring down, my window too
When will the pain, recede to the darkness
From whence it has come, and I’m feeling so blue

Ain’t goin’ down, no more to the well
Sometimes it feels like, I’m going to hell
Sometimes I’m knocking, on your front door
But I don’t have nothing, to sell no more

I don’t even know who I was crying for/about. At times it felt like I was crying about Jerry, my first husband, the father of my three kids; ever since he apologized to me (such a rare event in my life that someone apologizes) I’ve felt tender towards him again, and he’s in poor health, and I just cried and wished with all my heart that we could be real friends again while there is time. And at times it felt like I was crying about Marc, who has a tendency to say things like, “Honey, after I’m dead maybe you’ll think about me when you walk on the stone path.” A few days ago I found myself feeling how impossible it would feel to go on without him if/when that time comes, how embedded he is in every single thing. I also feel so many other things as well, but those things are true, too.

And at times I felt like I was just sobbing about everyone lost, about all the suffering, about all the sorrow. It was completely overwhelming. Even though the playlist was on shuffle, it played three Van Morrison songs in a row and I just bawled through all three of them. Even writing this post has made me bawl.

Because, you know, loss and life, synonymous in that terrible way.

I have no doubt it was just a convergence of accidental coincidence, the darkened sky from the eclipse and that song coming on and in a time I’ve been thinking about so many things, including Jerry and Marc, but wow it was powerful. I was completely caught off guard by it, and hid myself because I couldn’t possibly have explained it to Marc. I can’t even really explain it to myself.

I’m glad I get swamped by things like that. I get swamped by joy, I get swamped by delight, I get swamped by wistfulness (my favorite feeling), I get swamped by sorrow. Lucky, lucky, lucky me — even when it’s sorrow. I’m very grateful for my complex inner life.

The forecast today: swamped by paint and irritation. Probability: 100%. 🙂

short and quick

Just a note of re-entry to mark the end of my two-day retreat offline.

My kneejerk note would be something like, “It was tremendous.” And in moments, it was! In other moments it was boring. In fewer moments than I expected, it was anxious. In many fewer moments than I expected, it was insightful. Mostly, it just was.

When you go out to watch stars at night, you have to watch for at least half an hour before light leaves your eyes and they become accommodated to the dark and you can see the fainter stars. In a way, my experience was like this: it took almost a whole day before the cacophony left my mind and I could find any silence, at all. I spent the first day in complete silence, but my mind was full of sound — songs (mainly LP), something that almost sounded and felt like radio static, and the voices of people I know. For the first day, my mind was also full of my own narration, of my telling the story of what I was doing as if I were telling you, or writing it. My mind was full of my noticing things to photograph to share. It took a very long time for that to stop happening, and in fact it never really stopped all the way. Implied other, present and accounted for!

And I realized that I had approached my retreat with a specific expectation of enlightenment, that some huge insight was going to happen for me and from then on I would be ever-changed. How silly, and how glad I am to have had the inner space to spot that one lurking in the subterranean churn. Ironically, that was my big enlightenment insight. 🙂 I do this all the time. I initiate these projects with this expectation, and impose the specific insight on myself right from the outset. “I’m going to get it and then I’ll be chill / whatever.” I laughed out loud when I realized this.

Every time I undertake one of these projects, whether it has to do with retreating from noise or watching more closely or going deep in some way, my searching always circles around the same issues, and I gain and lose them, gain and lose them, gain and lose them. I’ve always felt ashamed when I’d lose them again, as if I were a small person, unable to hold big and deep things . . . but I realized that this is the human endeavor. If we just sought and then gained enlightenment (whatever that means, as a word and for us as individuals) in one grab, then the world would work very differently than it actually does. This is the human endeavor.

So on the second day, I didn’t search for anything at all. I didn’t wait for chill / whatever. I just was. I just read. I just drank coffee. I just looked at the trees. I walked a lot, regular four-mile walks over my two days offline. I drank a beer. I actually did finish The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and ended up appreciating it, a lot. I rambled along my creeks. I stopped taking photographs. My experiences were just and only for myself. And I finally stopped narrating myself, and was able to be still in the silence of Heaventree. This felt less like a marvelous transformation, less like an a-ha! insight, and more like just that moment, nothing more.

I’m very glad I did it, and I’m so surprised that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to stay offline. My sense had been that I go online to manage any and all discomfort, as a distraction, but maybe being online produces discomfort. Well, it does. Obviously. It doesn’t just do that, it also allows for connection and happiness, but it does also produce discomfort, especially in this nightmarish Republican world we are trapped in. I’m glad to learn that it wasn’t so hard, and I’m thinking about having regular periods of staying offline. I missed people, I missed knowing how my friends around the world are doing, seeing their pictures, but I didn’t miss the noise, at all. Since I did not feel anxious, I’m left wondering why I go online to manage discomfort. My discomfort was never uncomfortable.

A couple of great things happened while I was away: I learned that our couches will be delivered this Saturday, and I got my NYPL library card, and I don’t know which one I’m more excited about. So Saturday we’ll have furniture and I can arrange an actual living room, and we’ll start painting, and then next Tuesday the new refrigerator will be delivered. The immediate big stuff will all be in place then, and done. And I belong to the NYPL again. SO HAPPY.

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?