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

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

the exciting thing

writingThe only reason I have disengaged from Facebook, my major time-suck indulgence, is because I want to write a book. I want to write a book. I’ve always wanted to write a book, it’s not just something I’ve said. I deeply deeply want to write a book. I think about it all the time; lately I’ve been noticing the amount of mental energy I spend on this topic. Every sentence I read — and I read a lot of sentences — makes me think one of two things: 1) oh….I could never have thought of that, the idea, the sentence, the word, the image, I’m just not a writer, or 2) good grief, even I could do better than that! So why don’t I!

Since I support myself, I need to work as many hours as I have work. Until recently, I’ve had more than enough work, always stretched out several weeks ahead, but always with the threat of it drying up. I make just more than enough money if I have full-time work; not enough to sock much away in savings, but enough to pay all my bills and have some for spending. Just more than enough. So I read others’ writing all day, and often evenings and weekends. At night, and in the middle of the night, I read for pleasure. It’s been hard to find time to give myself to do my own writing, hence the Facebook abandonment. (But oh how I miss you all!) I think one reason I’ve been so blue — depressed, even — has to do with this dream. I’ve found some time to give myself, and I haven’t written. It has felt like “put up or shut up” time and I haven’t put up.  I have shut up.

For years and years I’ve been writing a memoir, and there’s a place I am so seriously stuck I can’t get through it. So I went around, did an end run, and started writing on the other side of the stuck place. But the book is heavy, hard, and sad. It is my white whale, and I’ve felt unable to do anything but that book. My one-note song. Whenever I’d try to write something else, it just turned into one of my stories and I’d be back to memoir. My deepest quiet question is whether I really am a writer, or if I just want to tell my story and that’s all it is. I want to be a writer, far beyond telling my own story, I want that desperately. I thought if I could get that thing written and out of me, then I would be liberated to tell other stories, then I would be unclogged in some way.

Marnie talks about “brain crack” which, as I understand it, are the things you do around the creative project that let you feel like you’re working on it, but you’re really not. Oh let me clean my desk and organize my brushes and paints, and then I’ll get to work. Oh let me make notes for my story and then kind of block out plots and research similar stories to be sure I’m original, and I ought to look at a Google map so I know what that corner looks like, and then I’ll get to work. Instead, you just need to paint. Instead, just start writing. I indulge in a lot of brain crack.

But in the middle of the night, I got an idea for a book that is so thrilling, so possible for me, and it’s squarely in my wheelhouse, in all the ways. The center of it came to me, and I can see exactly how to proceed. By that I mean I see the roads very clearly, I know exactly where to go, but I don’t know exactly how it’ll look on the roads. I don’t know exactly who I’ll encounter on the roads, where I’ll stop along the way. Those things I’ll find out when I get on the road. I know where the road is going, and I know where it will need to end — at least clearly enough to get started. I cannot WAIT to get started. My fingers are itching, I have mental notes running as if from a ticker tape machine.

And this excitement, this creative urge, has pushed my depression out the door. It helps that my dear friend’s health worry doesn’t seem to be the bad thing we all dreaded (that helps a lot). It helps that my loved ones have loved ones of their own right there in their homes, to also watch over them. It helps that my terror over not having work has found its level and isn’t strangling me the way it was. It helps that I have sweet friends who poke me, who tell me to look out the window, who whisk me away to a river, who tell me their door is always open to me. It helps that my daughter Katie is in a position of her own to reach out for me in the most loving way you could ever imagine — it helps that she did that, and it helps that her own life, while still filled with worries, isn’t so overly filled with worries that she doesn’t have much to spare. NO, she has generosity to spare because her life is not being bombarded, and that helps me.

And it helps that I’m about to write a book. I really am, finally.

p.s. I’m off to a river! Karyn, my beautiful friend, and her sweet husband Mike are whooshing me away to join them for the weekend at their home in the hill country. We will kayak and hike and bicycle, we will make and eat good food, we will watch the river run and the stars wheel through the sky, and we will talk. A lot. Lucky me! (see yesterday’s post)

here's Willie
here’s Willie

p.s.s. I dreamed that Willie Geist, one of the affable hosts of the Today Show, and his wife Nancy Snyderman, serious and deeply-dimpled physician reporter for the Today Show and NBC News, had asked me to join them. The dream opened in a hotel room, two queen beds, and I suddenly didn’t remember why they wanted me to join them. He was running for office, was I the driver? The speechwriter? The copyeditor for his speeches? We all got in bed, Nancy (in her severe blue pajamas) in bed with me, lying on her back with her hands clasped on her chest, Willie in the other bed. It was quiet, then Nancy started chatting non-stop even though Willie needed his sleep. She got up to go to the bathroom and the next thing I knew someone was in bed with me! Willie, must be, who else? He snuggled up next to me, curled against my back, didn’t do anything else but I was freaking OUT, man. I stood up and waited for Nancy to come back, and suddenly a passel of kids was also in the room. From the adjoining room, I hadn’t noticed. Their kids. Maybe 5, maybe more, of all ages from about 4 to young adult. Was I there as a babysitter?

The kids were all fabulously tattooed. Their skin was paper white, and the full-color tattoos were gorgeous on them. They all had the same enormous design on their backs, and the designs on their arms and legs were of the same kind of design, but each kid had unique tats on their arms and legs. One of the boys zeroed in on me and basically attached himself to me. Sometimes I thought he was about 8, but other times I’d noticed that he had hairy legs and chest, and must’ve been in his early 20s. I realized he was the one who had gotten in bed with me.

here's Nancy.
here’s Nancy.

Willie and Nancy left because Willie had to give his speech.

The boy who was attached to me ran to the window because he saw small animals outside, and I looked and it was fantastic — so many small animals, some ordinary like squirrels, some I’d never seen in the world before, though they looked possible. He and I went outside and we were in some other place, then, after going through the door.

And . . . scene. Really weird, right? One thing: I need to quit watching so much NBC. 🙂

ferocity and gaze

Right now I seem to be on a path of realizing I don’t know very much about myself at all. Holy cow is that shocking. Seriously, seriously shocking. The whole idea of who I am has always been confusing to me (maybe people in my life know me much better than I know myself, another idea that is pretty damn shocking). When I came out of my childhood, it felt like every single thing was thrown up in the air, because everything I was needed to be scrapped. I was doing a cold boot, and when everything is up for grabs like that, it’s weird. I didn’t know what I liked. I didn’t know what I thought. I didn’t know what was true about me. I’d been told a lot of things were true of me, but I knew most of them were wrong. It was not fun. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of like when I had to start my new home from scratch last November. Doing a remodel can be fun, but working from the ground up isn’t as much fun as you’d think it is. There’s a kind of urgency, a need to get the bones up, and fast. Then, all the years I lived in New York I did a lot of therapy and got a lot of stuff figured out, and felt like I had a better-than-average grasp of who I am. HA!

Yesterday Marnie and I were talking about . . . well, a lot of things, as we always do, but we started talking about Bjork. Marnie saw Bjork at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and she was so deeply moved by every bit of it, but the point that led our conversation off in another direction was about the extraordinary self-possession of Bjork and the apparent disregard of her back-up singers for the male gaze. Well! I’ve been thinking about the male gaze since November, because I want to get outside it. I want to not give one shit about it. I want to just not think about it, not care about it. I don’t need to flaunt it or defy it (because that’s still engaging it), I just want not to care about it. But it’s so deeply embedded inside me, even when I’m just home alone, or driving in my car, I can become aware of it. Last January when I was going to that dance party, on the way I was thinking I’d just dance HOWEVER because I didn’t give two shits about attracting anyone. In fact, the idea of attracting someone was upsetting, and I wanted to not get into that swamp. But I couldn’t get outside it, even though I wanted to.

Of course it’s built into our evolutionary-shaped DNA, the dance between men and women (or whatever partner configuration you seek, I suppose) just is. I guess you can only get so far outside it. I wonder if I lived in a commune of women on an island somewhere if I’d finally feel outside it. Probably.

So putting it all together, as I’ve been doing since my conversation with Marnie: apparently I don’t really know myself that well and I want to get farther away from awareness of the male gaze. One word that came up when I was talking with Marnie about Bjork was that she’s fierce, and I love fierce. I think I can be fierce. Am I fierce? I don’t know. I’m so damn worried all the time about being nice (I think? You tell me….). What would it mean to just be who and how I am without worrying about the external eye, the external watcher? Who would I be? I mean, of course I live in society and there are bounds, but they’re not quite as close to me as I feel them to be. One thing I know and believe is that when one of us finds a way to be as fully ourself as possible, it liberates others of us. When we watch Bjork’s dancers just fuckin dance, we think maybe we’ll dance like that too, but in our own way. When I say no — even such a small thing as that — others feel free to say no too, in their own time.

A lot of times I think we start from the outside and work our way in. I’ve been wanting a large tattoo but was inhibited because Marc didn’t want me to have a large tattoo. Well, I cared about that so I didn’t get one . . . but I never quit wanting it. So now I have it, and perhaps I’ll get more, I don’t know. It feels true to me, in some way. All my life, before I grew my hair out like it is now, I had very short hair and I played with the color, constantly. Constantly. That was such fun, and it felt true to me too. Marc likes long hair so I grew it out, and it’s much harder to play with color when your hair is so long. The stakes are higher. If it’s an inch long, you get bad color and it’s all gone in a haircut or two. I do like my hair long, I do; I think it’s pretty hair, and I like being able to do a lot with it. But I’m starting to think about chopping it and playing with color again. When I realize I’m scared to color my hair, my first thought was Prufrock: Do I dare to eat a peach?  REALLY, ME??? Seriously? IT IS HAIR. It grows back.

I'm thinking of this style, and not hot fuschia, but some kind of great color.
I’m thinking of this style for starters, and not hot fuschia, but some kind of great color.

I don’t want to be an old woman chasing youth and looking ridiculous with crazy colored hair and too-young clothes. It is not about that, at all. It’s not about chasing youth. I wouldn’t want to be younger (except for maybe a whole lot of money, that would give me a kind of security, but it’d have to be a whole lot of money!). I love being 54, it is awesome. And I think 54-year-old me needs to do some thinking, and some outside-in work in the meantime.

Whatever else is true, I am an odd combo. I’m thrilled with my new zebrawood ukulele and learned a little French tune yesterday. I love my banjo, and my guitar. I’m tattooed. I read big and good literature and excellent poetry. I’m shy and awkward and a have a huge bunch of friends and a busy social life. I’m fierce in some ways and way too worried about being nice. Am I still a scared person? I’d live in Hanoi in a heartbeat, but I want to be available for my kids since they are soon having their own children. I’m kind of sensitive and delicate but loud and tough, too, and if you hurt someone I love I will never, ever, ever forgive you. Ever. I believe I could physically and literally kill anyone who really hurt my children. I want to automatically just dance like no one is watching, and not because of that corny old saying. I just want to be that woman who lives herself. Am I that woman, deep inside? I think so. I want to find out.

the tiniest bit

When I was a kid, I was that smart girl on the front row. I didn’t want to be that smart girl on the front row, I wanted to be the popular girl. But I was the girl who always won the prize for reading the most books; I was teacher’s pet; I was the girl with crooked glasses from falling asleep reading every night; I was the girl who always had her homework and always aced every test. It was terrible. It would’ve helped if I’d had some encouragement at home, I suppose, a cheering squad that helped me understand that it’s awesome to be that smart girl, but actually it was bad that I wanted to read so I had to do that in secret. But OH how I wanted to be the popular girl. Once I got it in my head that I’d fail and then maybe the other kids would like me, but I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t that I couldn’t make myself try — oh, I tried — but I couldn’t figure out how to fail.

So instead, I became dismissive and contemptuous of being a smart girl and dissed myself, learned how to “act dumb,” especially around boys who really did not like the smart girls. It became an ingrained habit to act dumb so I wasn’t threatening. I’d know something, but act like I didn’t know it and then allow people to tell me about it, and I’d choke on not adding to what they were saying, or correcting them if they were getting it wrong. And when I really wouldn’t know something, even though I’d catch on very quickly, I’d hide that fact.

I love to read, and I mostly read really good stuff. I love poetry, and I tend to prefer thinking about ideas that pop up, like the one that recently obsessed me: What is it like to be you? And then I wonder how is that a different question from Who are you? And then I start wanting to ask people to write answers to the question, and analyze the responses, and then I wonder about doing a factor analysis, and imagine I have an idea of how the responses would clump up, and then wonder what would go with the different clumps…..  yeah. That’s the kind of thing I prefer to think about. That’s just what it is like to be me, actually — to be easily moved by the world, to think about things like this all the time, and to want to eat it all up. That’s what it’s like to be me.

Over the last I-don’t-know-how-long, I’ve come to greater ease with confessing myself, by which I mean just being who I am. OK, I’m a big reader of good stuff. No, I haven’t read Dan Brown and don’t want to so I can’t talk about that with you. Yes, I adore poetry and have a handful of recent favorite poems I’d love to talk about if you’re interested. Yes, I’d love to talk about what’s really going on in your life, or in mine — as much of the true story as you want, not the glib superficial stuff. Yeah, I get really excited about stuff and since I’m not making fun of myself for that these days, that’s who you get, in a much more straightforward way. So that’s who I am, and I’ve been being that a lot more easily. There are all kinds of ways that’s better for me, but there is an extremely cool side-effect I didn’t anticipate.

courageWhen I am just being myself, it somehow seems to encourage other people to do the same. I never thought about that (but someone else did, because they created that image I’ve added to the post!). In the last few weeks, several people have said that to me very directly, and it kind of shocked me, that I’ve inspired them to do this or that thing they’d let go, or that they’ve realized they are X too and want to let other silliness go. But then I remembered other people I’ve known, people who flowered with just the tiniest bit of encouragement. Really, just a tiny bit. And I think that’s the thing, we all need just a little encouragement now and then. Because it’s hard to be in the world, to be odd in our own ways — as we all are — and to think we need to fit in (because we do) but not too much at the expense of what matters, but it isn’t as if that’s always so very clear.

When I get to hang out with extremely smart people, I always feel SO much better, because I get to step up to that plate and see if I can hit the ball too — and maybe I can’t, but it’s such a pleasure to try. When I get to hang out with people who just go ahead and talk about ‘serious’ things I feel such joy because I don’t have to struggle to talk about stuff I really don’t care about. This is yet another way my friend Janet has been such a good influence on me; she doesn’t really have time for B.S., or much tolerance for B.S.ers, either. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and our styles are very very different but I’ve gotten some encouragement and permission from her to stand by my preference to talk about things that matter to me, instead of things I really couldn’t care less about. Why is that so hard?? I care about the things I care about and so why don’t I get to mostly stick with that (and then of course tend to the social niceties)? You care about the things you care about, and you get to mostly stick with that! Maybe we end up caring about the same things and then WATCH OUT because I’m probably going to wiggle my hands around and tell you that I’m having goose bumps and I’m going to be very very happy while we talk.

Just the tiniest bit of encouragement, that’s really all it takes. So you go be who you really are, and the bonus is it’s so encouraging to others. And I’ll do the same. And it’s so great.

belonging

where do I belong?
where do I belong?

Belonging is a tough subject for me, one of my quintessential variables. Definitional, even, my old feeling of not belonging. One very good thing that’s happened for me over the last several months is a settling-in to belonging to myself, to having a home within myself. And that’s so very good. I’ve been kind of clinging to that knowledge the last 24 hours.

I love New York City. I love it so much. I love Texas, by which I primarily mean Austin. Love it so much too. I’ve semi-belonged to both places. I’ve lived in a lot of places — CT, VA, AL, AR, NJ — but the only places I have ‘belonged’ have been Austin and New York City. But age and experience have put me in a funny place with both of them. When I went to Katie’s last October for the horrible agony of Gracie’s death and funeral, I realized with a shock that I could never live in Texas again. It felt too far away from my sensibility, too small (oy, don’t tell a Texan that Texas is too small!), I needed a place like New York City. And then, of course, immediately upon my return to NYC there was the ending of my marriage and all I could do was return to Austin. The place I’d just realized I could never live again. (Lesson: Never say you can never do something, for that’s the next thing you’ll be called on to do.)

So there I’ve been, in Austin, and struggling with adjusting my eyes. Struggling to get a different focus so I could simply see and relish the joys and charms of that place instead of only seeing it as not-NYC. And it has been hard, I must say. I have my home, which feels safe and beautiful and I love it, and I have Katie and Trey and their home, and so many beautiful friends, but oh how I have just longed for NYC. Last weekend in Chicago I felt drunk on the giddy pleasures of being back in a big city.

And now here I am, in my other-beloved. New York City. And it is beautiful, and it is busy, and it is everything. And I do not belong here so easily, now. People are rude, they crash into you and elbow you and don’t really give a shit. New York City: the city of the honey badger. They’re not really being rude, it’s just what it is to be here. It’s my city, but it’s not my home any more. I don’t really belong. But I don’t really belong in Texas, either. I am in the limbo zone, wanting and not wanting both places, and realizing that some theoretical in-between doesn’t exist.

pinballI’ve spent much of the day wandering around, shopping, getting stuff done, readjusting to the noise (so noisy!), trying to avoid being crashed into by everyone, feeling like a ball in a pinball machine. Reminding myself to breathe deeply, slowly, reminding myself of my center in my home, my place within myself, reminding myself that wherever I am, I am home. That I belong to myself and that’s important belonging. And, of course, I am just a few months into this transition, and so patience is required. Patience and experience, and then some more patience. That helps, has been helping me.

Tonight, off to eat at Awash, my favorite Ethiopian restaurant, for some special raw kitfo, some charcoal tibs, some whole bunch of vegetables and lentils, some spongy injera, the pleasure of excellent and familiar food, a familiar walk in my old neighborhood.

And that reminds me of my favorite Adrienne Rich poem, “Shooting Script:”

Whatever it was, the image that stopped you, the one on which you
came to grief, projecting it over & over on empty walls.

Now to give up the temptations of the projector; to see instead the
web of cracks filtering across the plaster.

To read there the map of the future, the roads radiating from the
initial split, the filaments thrown out from that impasse.

To reread the instructions on your palm; to find there how the
lifeline, broken, keeps its direction.

To read the etched rays of the bullet-hole left years ago in the
glass; to know in every distortion of the light what fracture is.

To put the prism in your pocket, the thin glass lens, the map
of the inner city, the little book with gridded pages.

To pull yourself up by your own roots; to eat the last meal in
your old neighborhood.

things I know

I’ll tell you how magnificent it is to get older, not that 54 is old. It’s just older, that’s all. I am so lucky to be in excellent health, and I don’t take that for granted, even though I don’t take care of myself the way I intend to. When I get home from Indonesia, I hope to jigger my mornings to make space for a long daily walk, which will be a great change to my wholly sedentary life. Right now is just such a sparkling period of happiness and growth for me, I can hardly see, my sight is so dazzled. The light inside me is brilliant. I’d give back the troubles if I could, but since I can’t, I just cherish the things that have come in their wake. Here are some things I know.

my guitar and banjo, old old friends. not visible: my new friend, my dulcimer
my guitar and banjo, old old friends. not visible: my new friend, my dulcimer

At this point, I accept that I am never going to be an astronaut. Or a prima ballerina. Or a professional singer. Or a dinosaur-egg-discovering paleontologist. There were periods in my life where I felt so torn about all the various things I wanted to do, and to be (which never included astronaut or ballerina). Directions I thought I might go, interests I might pursue to excellence, things I wanted to achieve. I’ve never been ambitious, or driven by thoughts of power or big achievement; my desires were smaller, more local, but I was so torn and always trying to make things work around my 3-kid family. When I had looms and spinning wheels, oh there wasn’t time to play my guitar. Etc. I did some things: I went to college, I went to graduate school and earned my PhD; I raised my children the very best I could and loved them always, with all my heart. And I piddled — a bit of guitar or banjo, some knitting, some writing, some baking, lots of pleasures but no mastery. What I know — for me, now — is that this is just fine. Marnie said a friend of hers gave a year to being an amateur, to trying this and that, to allowing herself to just be new at things, to try things. I will die in some distant decade a professional amateur, making music for myself and enjoying it (picking on my banjo, strumming on my guitar and dulcimer, and maybe even taking up a little ukulele, and singing); making things for people I love and enjoying it; learning new things and enjoying that; writing every day for my own growth and happiness. And that’s pretty fine. It’s about being vs achieving. And if someone gets an idea from my experience that it’s just fine to pursue interests and talents for their own pleasure, that’s good too.

my friend Cyndi had never eaten Ethiopian food, so I was lucky to get to introduce her
my friend Cyndi had never eaten Ethiopian food, so I was lucky to get to introduce her

Other people are as necessary as air. My shy introversion is wound deep into my history, my story of myself, and many of my experiences in the world. I’ve so often wished to get food poisoning just before a social event so I wouldn’t have to go, only to thoroughly enjoy myself when I go. I’m always working and make a lot of social plans — these days, instead of wishing for food poisoning I fret, thinking I can’t spare the time because I’m pushing to finish a work project. That is a shift, right there, but it’s gotten even shiftier. Last night I met Cyndi at an Ethiopian restaurant, and on the way I was really anxious about missing those two hours because I’m up against a hard deadline of my trip to Indonesia, and have a LOT of work to finish. On the way, I realized just how much I love seeing my friends, and how important they are to my life and my well-being, even if they’re casual friends. I don’t reach out to them to schedule things, because I always think I’m too busy, but that’s nuts. Having some very close friends, a bunch of casual friends, my gang, and old friends scattered around the country and the world is amazing and invaluable. All those years I felt so afraid, I missed out on so many good things. It’s never too late.

happy me, in Marfa, 3/2013
happy me, in Marfa, 3/2013

It’s never ever too late to look at the data and see a new story. For most of my life, my story of myself has been dominated by tales of trauma and devastation, shocking and horrific. The first ~18 years of my life were truly, truly, truly nightmarish, filled with relentless terrors. And I am 54, so there have been twice as many years away from those experiences. Literally. Of course it’s not a simple issue of numbers — 36 years of not-that surely trump 18 years of that — because there are deep and sometimes deadly consequences of things that happen to you when you’re a kid. I know that. And yet I’ve been so troubled by the fact that even though those experiences are long gone, I was still living them. Enough already, I’d think over and over. So that’s a version of my life I could tell (and have told, relentlessly). But there’s another story in there, so intimately connected you can’t pry them apart. It’s both sides of the same hand. The other story: WOW, what a story of survival and triumph. What a story of bravery and creativity. What a story of courage. Little-me was amazing. My spirit and mind and creativity, what a thing. It’s not a twisting-the-facts story, it’s not a making-lemonade-out-of-lemons story, it’s the fullness of the true story. You can look at any story from your life and see another story in there too. Like my very favorite Mister Rogers story that is now popular, about seeing the helpers when you witness a disaster. The disaster is real. And so are the helpers.

Why can’t you see who you are? That’s partly rhetorical, because I may understand the reasons we can’t more than anyone else. We can’t because we were always told lies about who we were, as my mother calling me fat cow. We can’t because we’re too self-critical. Because we see those clumpy thighs and others don’t see them, if we can help it. Because we know all the bits hidden in the dark corners that we don’t show others, the ways we can be small and petty. And sometimes we may even have moments of insight — well other people have dark corners too! And other people are unhappy with their thighs, or their teeth, or their posture, or their tummies, or whatever they see that no one else sees, because no one is perfect. And being so critical of yourself just feels so bad, and if it doesn’t motivate you to change something, maybe it’s time to back off. And if we were lied to, we can learn to talk back (“Am not a fat cow! Am not!”). But for me, a miracle of aging — combined with a run of hard times and the not-having-it feedback from a new friend — is a willingness to see who I am. I’m not all that, but I am, at the same time. You are too and if you can’t see who you are right now, I hope you can see pretty soon. Maybe you’ll be lucky like I was, and have a friend laugh and ask why you can’t see who you are, and then tell you what she sees. It doesn’t make the world perfect, it doesn’t melt away those little thigh clumps, it doesn’t solve any problems, but it does make it harder for you to belittle yourself and give yourself away to the lowest bidder. And that’s pretty fine stuff.

I strongly recommend getting older. Not only is it better than the alternative, it’s better than youth, any day of the week. Any day. I hope today is a beautiful day for you, and I hope you see who you are.

what is it like to be you?

​At the beginning of our trip — that seems so very long ago, now — we flew from JFK to Frankfurt on Lufthansa. My husband is Jewish, with Russian and eastern European roots, and he told me that he kept hearing the flight attendants saying blitzkrieg; after the first flight attendant served us, with her brilliant blond hair and bright blue eyes, her shiny healthy face and large white teeth, the song Tomorrow Belongs To Me popped into my head (from Cabaret) and I sang it in my head the whole trip.​

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”604″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1m61kMQ” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/29Mg6Gfh9Co?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=29Mg6Gfh9Co&width=604&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep7342″ /]
Poor Germany, poor Germans, bearing the burden of that horrifying history.  I had two friends in graduate school who were from Germany; one came directly into our program, from Bavaria, and the other had moved to El Paso, Texas, when she was in junior high and she was treated very badly because she was German. Both my friends talked about how difficult it is to be German, the assumptions people hold about them, the history they’re held accountable for, even though they were both born in the early 1970s, I think. Both are kind and warm and gentle, and very loving people.

So I was thinking about what it’s like to be German, and I simultaneously thought it was a dumb, unanswerable question, and a very good question. I timidly floated the idea past my husband, leaning against the “dumb question” side of the fence and Buddhist that he is, he gave some kind of answer about the failure of categories. I kept thinking about it, though, and asked a friend of mine the question — what’s it like to be you? She said, “sad and empty.” OH….that punched me. It’s sad and empty to be her; even though I’d heard her say those kinds of things before, I guess I took them as feelings in passing. It asks a very different question than “who are you,” doesn’t it. I started thinking about different groups of people — disabled, Texans, southerners, statisticians, sanitation workers — and posed it to myself to see how one would answer it: “Lorraine, what’s it like being a Texan?” “Well,” I’d quickly say, “sometimes it’s mighty embarrassing if politics come up, but generally it’s like having a big secret you can’t wait to tell, it’s like having a whole huge story in your back pocket.” ​ The “what’s it like” question asks for feelings, while the “who are you” question asks for roles and nouns.

And then, social psychologist that I am, I started thinking about analytic strategies for understanding the responses, and how the responses to this question would hang together with other things. I have a friend who had a heart transplant as a young man after a virus attacked his heart, and in graduate school he wanted to understand how transplant recipients think about who they are — would those who answer the “what’s it like to be you” question by focusing on the bad stuff have different post-transplant responses than those who focus on the possibilities for restored life? ​

So here’s the answer for me, what it’s like to be me, if you were to ask me right now at this stage of my life (which brings up another issue, more in a sec): It’s amazing. It’s big, it’s rich, it’s deep, it’s vast, it’s wonderful, it’s complex being me. It just is, above and beyond the daily specifics. The bad stuff that inevitably happens doesn’t really change that, because it’s also about having perspective [most of the time]. It’s pretty great to be me. I wish I’d asked myself that question once a decade, or so​, because I’d like to see how — or if — it changed. I could ask myself now, “what was it like being me in my 20s, my 30s, my 40s” and I can easily cast back and think about my life then, but I wonder what I’d have said then. When I was in graduate school, I’d just told my advisor that I felt like I was better than I’d ever been, and he laughed (kindly, I hope) and said that he figured that was a constant for me, that I always felt like I was better than I’d been before. That’s probably true.

You know where this is going. What’s it like to be you? I really want to know.