1) I wish I had more time to read. That would really mean there would just have to be more hours in the day, because I already read nearly every waking hour. But one of my most readily touched sources of frustration is just not having enough time to read. The new issue of the New York Review of Books taunts me, every single article headlined on the cover one I feel urgent about reading. Anne Carson’s wondrous book project about the loss of her brother, Nox, singing to me in the late hours as I continue to struggle with my grief about my son. I know I would find understanding there. Drawing books, volumes of poetry, novels that were given to me by friends, books I’ve bought, and then all those I really want to read again. For some reason The Tin Drum has been whispering in my mind’s ear, read me again. The little girl I was still lives in me, the one who identified with Jo March, sitting in her attic window with a book and a bowl of apples, whiling away a winter day. How I would love to do that.
We who need to read are probably mysterious to those who don’t. I’ve heard what they sometimes say about us — get your nose out of that book. I prefer to actually live my life. Jerks, those who say those kinds of things. I’m not quite sure why I have such a never-quenched need to read, but I do.
2) If I think abstractly about what I think equals a “good life,” I’d say that [for me] it would require people to love, and be loved by — family (born into or made) and friends. It would require a home of some kind, whatever that might mean. Easy pleasures, like making good food. Reading (see above) wonderful books, stories, poetry, sense-making of all kinds. Music, and art. I’d say it would involve exposure to the world in whatever way that would be possible, traveling if that’s available. I’d say a good life would require history with people, so sticking it out over the long haul. I’d say a good life would require openness to the world, and a willingness to be present to whatever it presents. I have a good life. What would you add to my list?
3) A poem for the just-passed winter solstice, and for you:
The Shortest Day, by Susan Cooper
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
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W.O.W. I can only read the book in snips and sips, it’s pretty raw and powerful, and quite hard. She does a thing I’d give anything to do, in my own voice. I recommend the book, or anything else she has written.
In one of the lectures she talks about the central importance of our metaphors, and in finding the story underneath the story, and the one underneath that. She said that if you just tell the story you’ve always told, it will be dead, and she provided a really great exercise that I’m dying to try. But in her conversation about metaphor, she said she’d shared an early draft of Chronology of Water with a trusted reader and she asked for deep feedback. Among the feedback, the reader mentioned that Lidia’s central metaphor was water, which she simply had not realized . . . even though a huge part of the story is her early life as an athlete, a competitive swimmer, and her return to swimming, and her feelings of drowning, and on and on and on. Realizing her central metaphor was a crystallizing and powerful thing, not just for her book but for her understanding of herself, and her life.
She said everyone operates with a few metaphors, and she named a couple of others that echo through her stories and her life. I thought it was fascinating that she couldn’t see her own most central metaphor, but at the same time I totally get it. Fish don’t see the water!
I do have a sense of one big metaphor in my life (by which I mean a metaphor that I see in my recurring experiences — it’s my storytelling, not something that exists in a reified way in my life), but I wondered about others. And since sometimes other people can see you more clearly than you see yourself, I thought I’d ask. If you’ve been around the palace for a while, what would you say are my metaphors? I’ll welcome any thoughts you may have.
And if you’re interested in Lidia (an interest that will be so rewarding, you’ll see), here’s her TED talk about being a misfit:
To those who feel like they don't belong: there is beauty in being a misfit. Author Lidia Yuknavitch shares her own wayward journey in an intimate recollection of patchwork stories about loss, shame and the slow process of self-acceptance. "Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful," she says.
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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:
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 Time. I expect dense reading, unlike the Rilke, but luckily I’m OK with that.
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The tide has turned. The worm has turned. It’s a beautiful morning. The world has turned. Morning has broken. And many other sayings like that.
Light is coming back. Light and air are coming back to me. Yesterday I actually laughed spontaneously, and I haven’t had “those” thoughts for three straight days, now. If bad language offends you, turn away (but then you probably aren’t one who reads my damn blog 🙂 ) — I think it’s fucking ending. Halle-fuckin-lujah. And thus ends the F word, in this post, anyway.
For you professional depression-havers out there, you know how it sidles up alongside you, a dark day turns into a week but you know, people have down weeks. A week slips into two, then three, and then you’re in it and don’t even remember that it ever was anything but this. I wish it announced itself in some way, that would make it all so much easier.
I told people slowly, very slowly, too slowly. One here, another there. This one. A hint of it to that one so as not to freak out that person. A secret group, and then another secret group, and then the last one, and then that last blog post and a public-ish post on open Facebook. Damn depression, the way it makes you unable to think and see! There was pretty much a linear correlation (thus ends the statistical stuff) between help I got and people I told. And a big duh right there. If I weren’t depressed I’d have caught it on the second person. So the next time this comes around, as I sadly imagine it will even as I hope it doesn’t, I hope I can remember this, and simply tell all my support people, my friends, those who love me, those I love, and accept the help they so generously give. Just do that. Tell, and as soon as you can. And as many people who love you as you can. You’ll know the ones who’ll get cold, or freak out, so don’t tell them but tell all the others, the ones who will rush toward you in even the slightest of ways.
This morning I was telling a group of friends about what this giant all-out launching of love has done for me, and a sweet little bit of writing slipped out of my fingertips so I’ll plagiarize myself: “this kind of love bombing I’ve been receiving ever since I went ‘public’ with it has been like a booster rocket, sending me above the ocean’s surface where I can take deep gulps of good air. And even if I go down again, I don’t go nearly as far.” [pretty good imagery if I do say so myself. thank you, subconscious.]
Of course every time is different, and it’s different for every person (different each person x different each time = I can’t do the math but that’s a lot of instances), but I learned something this time that I want to try for others, and I hope to ask for, for myself. When you are way down in the hole, people who love you remind you how much they love you, and of course they do, and you know it even if you can’t feel it while you’re down there. But the nasty little sentences I was resisting were these: No one would miss you. It wouldn’t matter if you just died.
People not only showed up, they gently took me out for a drink, for dinner, they held my hand and looked into my eyes and told me what I meant to them, they told me they understood because they suffer depression, they sent me little notes, or they bought me music, or they wrote me letters, or they sent me gifts. They listened to me with great heart and compassion, and I could see it in their glowing eyes. They pinged me every single morning asking how I was, darling, and sometimes again at night. If I said it was really really bad, I got good practical advice — go outside and take a very fast walk, go do it now. And text me when you’re back.
And sometimes they wrote out what it would mean to them if I weren’t here. And there it was, the very real argument against those miserable thoughts. Liar! She would be devastated, and in these particular ways! Liar! Her world would change in these particular ways! Liar! Liar! Liar! Not only were those like silver bullets against the thoughts, they were also overwhelmingly wonderful to read — not that people would suffer, but that my presence in their life means all those things.
And so I will carry this with me out of the darkness, and not just wait until someone is depressed to tell them what they mean in my life, how important they are in the very fiber of my life, but tell them all. (I mean, not all the time, for heaven’s sake. 🙂 ) You might file this away for the next time someone you love is severely depressed. It may or may not help them, but there is no way it can hurt. And maybe it will just make them feel too guilty to leave. Whatever works, man. Whatever works.
Just the right person came into my life at just the right time. I didn’t recognize it at the beginning, because I was too far gone in grief and loss, and she went out of the country for six months. I kind of feel like I’ve been waiting all my life for her, but don’t tell her that, she’ll get embarrassed.
I’ll only be able to explain her importance when I write the dedication and acknowledgements for my memoir, but thanks to her, it’s an entirely different book now, and it’s amazing and flowing. Yesterday I wrote for five hours straight, non-stop, two chapters, 7326 words. I could have written chapter 3 and chapter 4, probably, if I didn’t have to stop and clean the kitchen and brush my teeth and go to bed. (And take my mighty-strong extra antidepressant, which is also part of the equation in addition to all that love bombing.)
And so my silence here is probably going to be prolonged, but for a very different reason. I actually have two books to finish, one the publisher is waiting for, and I’m ~75% through, and the one I’m writing now, like a river flowing out of me, and I want to spend all my non-working time on these two writing projects. My friend turned the dial so it’s oriented at a different angle, said a magic sentence, and flipped the switch. How can I ever thank her enough.
So many people have helped me, I’d need an index-length acknowledgement to include them all, and I hope you know who you are if you read this. For everyone who said a little something, sent a little smile, told me to write, gave me your attention, your love, allowed me to give those to you, I am forever in your debt.
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At one of the first poetry groups held at my house, a wonderful guy named Seth brought a poem I no longer have or remember. It was one of those “embrace your life” kind of poems, but not at all corny or trite. The conversation drifted heavily into meaning, life, spending it as you really want, etc etc etc., and Seth — who is decades younger than the rest of us — said the greatest thing: “Yeah, but isn’t that really stressful, having to live! your! best! life! all the time? Doesn’t that stress you out?”
I busted out laughing. I imagine everyone else did too, it was such a surprising thing to say. Because yeah, if it turned out that today is the last day of my life, you know how I am spending it? I am copy editing a truly bad manuscript. Truly bad. Wake up and start working, work work work work work go to sleep. I’ll probably pause and squeeze in food at some point. Is that how I would want to spend my last day? Is this my best! life!? Obviously not. If today were the last day of my life, I would want to be surrounded by my children and grandchild, by family members I’ve adopted — Dixie and Karl, Sherlock and Peggy — and I’d want us sing, and say our urgent things, and cry, and then someone crack a joke for heaven’s sake, and I’d love to see a gorgeous slow sunset and the rise of a big white moon. THAT is how I’d like to spend my last day.
To follow that stressful exhortation, I would make things! Sing! Write! Travel like mad! Spend time with everyone I love, and that would take a long time to make one pass through. I’d walk and hike and be outside. I would recite poetry out loud. And then I’d travel some more. And then time with loved ones. Repeat. Do some dance party running for the sheer joy of it. Dance! Take a road trip.
Sadly, I wasn’t one of the people who was born into outrageous independent wealth, and so I must work to pay my bills. The rent is due, electricity, gas, insurance, student loan, cable. I haven’t yet figured out how to cash in on just being myself, and so I work. Like most of us do, if we are lucky enough to have work.
But you know, it can still mean a whole lot, even if you spend so much time doing mundane things. It’s about seeking the sacred, and enlarging the boundaries of what that means. Sacred is one of those words that you think you understand until you start pinning it down. It’s outside valence, not the sole property of the Good and Happy. Horrible things can take you to the sacred. When everything terrible happened at the end of 2012, most especially when we lost Gracie, I was immersed in the sacred. Trivial everyday things did not matter one bit. I looked around and saw ash. Being in the presence of that enormous moment, as horrible as it was, immersed me in the sacred.
I can fall into the sacred in savasana once in a while. Not as often as I’d like, but it has happened twice. I slip into the sacred when the sky is especially beautiful, and I am always looking at the sky. When the trees are spring green and bursting, or when they’re the color of fire and preparing for the winter — I can go there. When I have a moment where my mind stops chattering and I feel true awe, wordless awe and wonder, and I cannot speak. When tears run down my face.
Some days it’s so bland and flat and gray, and I don’t do anything but read for work. A photo that represented my day would have to be either of my laptop or my chair. On those days I have to look very hard, and of course it doesn’t always work. But sometimes it does. Where is the sacred for me today? If I need it, I can find it. If I need it, I can get still and quiet, and look. Sometimes I need it because my life feels dull and routine. Sometimes I need it because my heart aches. Sometimes I need it because it’s just been too long.
Of course I can go seek it — driving in a beautiful place with a great sky and huge scale (easy in Texas and in New York in a very different way). Going to a museum, or a live music performance. Dancing and laughing with friends. Holding Oliver and talking to Katie, or Marnie. But sometimes it’s just another one of those days and I can’t go do those things, so I seek it in making my dinner. I seek it in my morning ritual. I seek it in quiet and in my heart. Pretty reliably, if I stand up and stretch myself up with lightness, then circle my arms out and up, touch my palms, then pull them down to my heart and lower my head, something happens and I am living one of my best moments — because the trivial things of the day recede, the noise gets quiet, and time slows way down. When I open my eyes a few minutes later, there are often tears on my eyelashes and I feel washed and revived.
I hope you find a moment like that in your day today, some moment of awe and quiet, and slow deep breath, however you might find it. I will without a doubt seek that at some point in my otherwise trivial and dull day. Happy Friday, everyone. Love to you all.
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I’ve so been looking forward to getting home and reestablishing my daily routine, you know? My morning ritual before I get out of bed. A 15- or 20-minute yoga wake-up session. Coffee and my green smoothie. Work. A pause at 4 for an hour of yoga. Work. A pause around 6:30 to make a wonderful dinner. More work, maybe, or something with a friend. Meditation before bed. Regular hours, my lovely Austin routine.
ANYWAY. I arrived home on Tuesday and expected nothing from myself that exhausted day, especially since I’d had one hour of sleep and still felt like I was in Cambodia. So unpacking, laundry, grocery shopping, going through the mail, tidying up, Christmas tree up and decorated, an easy but wonderful dinner, an early sleep. And that basically happened….but then I got this awful cold. So my much-anticipated longing to return to my nourishing, happy routine has been quashed. I mope and moan all day, unable to muster the oomph to do anything at all. I fall asleep with no control over that at 4:30 and am awake at 2, unable to go back to sleep. Yesterday I thought that since I was awake, I should get going and use that time, so I took a hot steamy shower to loosen up my head, got dressed and put on a bit of make-up, made some coffee, and lost whatever bit of energy I had that took me that far. (Plus, my phone broke and I had to get a new one, and setting it up always uses up much more time than you’d anticipated….)
None of this would be stressful at all if I weren’t giving a Christmas party here at my place on Tuesday. There are supposed to be more than 20 people here, but we’ll see. It’s primarily a party for my poetry group and quite often people RSVP but then don’t show. My beautiful book club women — some of them — and my friend Nancy are also going to come. I’m doing a lot of cooking for the party, and I need to clean my house, and I have a manuscript to finish, and a terrible cold and crashing jetlag. I’m now at the point of reminding myself that it’s a party, with friends, and I don’t suffer the horrors of the big social scene so if my house isn’t spotless and some of the food is store-bought, who cares. It might not be as I’d hoped, but if I get fixated on making sure all the details are as I’d hoped, I’ll be sicker and worn down by the time my friends arrive, and I’ll have missed the whole point.
THE POINT: It’s Oliver’s first Christmas. I miss all my friends — the poets, the bookies, the beauties who aren’t in either of those groups — and want a chance to smile with them and tell them Merry Christmas. The year is winding down. For the first time in many, many years I will spend Christmas morning around a tree surrounded with presents for a little child in our family, a much-loved and adored baby.
That’s the point. Not how shiny my floors are, not how spotless the stovetop is, not how homemade the food is. Time with people, being with them, being present, and feeling all there is in those moments.
(Maybe this is just the rationalization at work since I’m still not feeling well enough to be as productive as I’d need to be. But WHATEVER, right? 🙂 )
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When I was a young mother, staying at home with babies, one day I felt a kind of despair that my life was spent doing an endless series of tasks that were quickly undone. Making beds, washing dishes and doing laundry, cleaning bathrooms, wiping bottoms, shopping for food, mopping floors, mowing the yard, taking out the trash. Things done only to be quickly undone. Was this to be my life? And then one sunny morning while I was making a bed I realized that in fact those tasks were just the details of a bigger thing: I was making a home for myself and people I love. I was creating a time and space. Everything shifted, though of course sometimes I still despaired at the dishes or bathrooms.
And so here I am all these years later thinking about the rest of my life, the years ahead. Going to the writers’ conference — even just the one day I attended — has made me feel like giving up on writing a book. It’s the impossibility of it, and that’s something I already knew. I see some of my clients (the ones who are such gorgeous writers, as “good” as any best-selling writer you’d ever love) struggle, getting nowhere with agents and editors at publishing houses, self-publishing and having to fight a hard fight every single day to get anywhere, and I just think oh for fuck’s sake. Hitting the jackpot and selling your manuscript for a big advance is still a roll of the dice. A woman I met at the conference had this happen to her, and just as the book was ready to launch, the publishing house was bought by another publisher (happens all the time) and everyone on her team was laid off. So her book was the bastard at the family reunion, and it disappeared into oblivion. When the book didn’t sell many copies — because how could it — she was seen as a writer whose books don’t sell. And she is a gorgeous writer, someone whose books I would pre-order every time.
The narcissist who led my workshop had every possible advantage. Educational advantages, sure, and family/wealth advantages sure, but it was the publishing advantages that left all of us kind of numb. Her mother is one of the biggest agents in NYC; she apparently discovered Didion, among a list of others that would make your jaw drop. So her mother sold the book for her after a big battle, and even with that built-in advantage the book nearly failed again and again. A woman in my workshop asked, with a bit of a shaky voice, “And if even you, with every possible advantage, had that kind of trouble, what hope do any of us have?”
And so here I am. What do I do with the rest of my life? There are so many things I love doing and they all make me happy. Spending time with my family, making things, playing my instruments, writing (for myself and smaller pieces to try to publish), cooking and baking, spending time with friends, reading. There are so many things I want to focus on a little more pointedly, like yoga and meditation. There are so many things I want to learn. Mandarin, for instance. Bagpipes. To return to the beginning of this post, when I think about simply BEING, simply living my daily life and doing all these things, I can feel that feeling of despair, like I’m measuring out my life with coffee spoons. Will that be what’s left of my life? Just piddling with this and that? What is the bigger frame for these things?
Right now, in this moment, I live a literary life. I make my living by reading. My monthly poetry group meets in my house, and my monthly book club is a tremendous highlight. I’m organizing a small writing group. Must I write and try to publish my book to have mattered in this world? No, and obviously. How about a bit of that: must I write my book? Would it still mean something if I finish it and do nothing with it, if I just write it for myself and whoever wants to read it?
And so here I am again, thinking about meaning, and the next part of my life. There are three Joseph Campbell quotes I’ve always loved:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” (The Power of Myth)
“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”
“Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.” (Creative Mythology)
I believe that being here right now is it, being present in the moment, savoring that. I believe that the meaning of life is to live it, and for me that means creating things and being with people I love. For me that means seeing as much of the world as I possibly can. Helping my children the rest of my life, being a good part of their lives. I believe that my life is a burst of light, flaring up into existence and then fading in the memories of people who loved me. I do believe these things, even as I also feel a bit of despair. What is the bigger project I am engaged in now? I know a bunch of you who read this blog are grappling with this too, and if you’ve figured out an answer, or a bit of one, or even what the question is, I would love to hear any of it.
Man alive, it’s a weird weird world. My very lucky life is blessed with lots of loved ones I get to see in person, touch, laugh with, eat with, commiserate with, smile and cry with. In person. In my 55 years of living, I’ve never had so many people like that, never. Every single one of you that I can see in person — even if it’s kind of rare because of my bipolar life, even if it’s very rare because we’re so alike that our timid natures mean we don’t make something happen [but it could! it totally could!] — you are extraordinarily precious to me. Individually by name or in groups (like ‘family,’ ‘book club,’ or ‘Austin friends’), you are often represented in my daily gratitude email.
But what’s super bizarre about living these days is that I have people I count as dear friends, and we have never met and ‘only’ have an electronic relationship. This isn’t really all that new; people used to have letter correspondences with people they never met, and those correspondences were every bit as deep and meaningful as in-person relationships, and in some cases I’d bet they were more important because that level of remove can facilitate a different kind of honesty. Marnie recommended a book I have been carrying around with me (and to Greece and back) called The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, which are the letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright—a poet and a writer who only met in person twice, but whose long correspondence carried them across the years and through the death of one of them. Their letters started formally but became deeper and more personal, and moved to the most profound subjects. So no one should be dismissing electronic relationships out of hand. They might be trivial, but they are not necessarily so just because the people haven’t met.
Some of you have become very dear friends to me and we have never met, but we write back and forth and I count you in my heart. It’s incredible when I think about you, about how real you are to me as friends, when I recall how I feel when you pop into my inbox, how I think of you when I see something relevant to you. How I worry when you’re sick or struggling in some way, how overjoyed I am when something great happens for you, how I trust you when I am not doing well and share that with you. One of you has even met my daughter — but not me yet! And quite surprisingly, I have a very important group of women in Australia and New Zealand. It started with one woman in NZ named Megan, whose blog I first found a few years ago and just fell in love with the things she thought about, the books she read, the worries and joys she wrote about. Perhaps through her, I can’t remember now, I found my way into a Facebook group she belongs to called Recent Reads. That group is intended for book talk—what’ve you read, did you like this, here’s how I felt about that—obviously. When Gracie died I went to that group and posted a brief note saying what had happened, and asking for recommendations of something I might be able to read that could be helpful, big enough, meaningful enough.
Hundreds of responses were posted, many offering book suggestions and more offering sorrow and comfort and support, and then one woman in the group called me on the phone from Perth to check on me. I may never find that anything less than astonishing, no matter how many times I recall it. She and I will meet in person one of these days, absolutely. Another woman, Kathy, turned out to live just outside Austin, even though the group tilts heavily towards Aussies as far as I can tell. Mary, the lovely woman who started that group, went on to start other groups and always included me.
She recently started a new private group. It’s very small, and set up so everything shared in the group is private in every regard. You won’t see anything in the little irritating feed on the right that reports on what your friends like and say to others — nope. It’s all private. And it’s all women. I may be one of the oldest, don’t know that either, but most who have kids still seem to have them at home, even if they’re getting close to college. And of the 36 members, only 5 or so (hard to be certain) are not in Australia or NZ. But something deeply magical has happened in that group and we are all in awe of it. We started off just complaining about the stuff we complain about—mostly husbands and children, occasionally bosses. About the way we have to do all the thinking for everyone . . . why doesn’t he ever do that? Why does no one replace the toilet paper? Could anyone else possibly think about dinner for a change? It’s wickedly funny because it’s private, and we all get it. And it’s wickedly hilarious because there is no such thing as too much information. Mature women bitching about skid marks and accidental peeing and blood and farting during yoga and anything that comes up. In a comment I referenced something my husband did and a woman I’ve known a long time responded that she still hasn’t forgiven him for it on my behalf—but then, neither have I or anyone else who knows about it. Solidarity. Grudge-holding on my behalf. Those things are bonds, you know?
And then one woman turned it around a bit and said why she loved her husband so much and everyone followed, and the stories were extraordinary. So many of us cried as we read the very long thread of responses. (We’d get back to bitching soon enough.) And then one woman had something absolutely terrible happen in her family and the way these women have rallied around her, extraordinary quadrupled. We all watch the group in awe, and I feel as they do, that it’s a very special place.
It’s so unexpected to me, having all these connections to women down under. There’s even a woman in my ‘real’ life in Austin from Sydney, and she is very dear to me. I never dreamed I’d care so much about so many people there, since I’ve never been there. Although I know it’s crazy because Australia is huge, and even though it’s nearby New Zealand is a whole other deal, but still somehow I feel like they all know each other and hang out together and aren’t I lucky that they let me into the club. But then I feel that way about all of my women friends. So very lucky that you let me into the club with you.
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When Marc was here a couple of weekends ago, we were talking about him as Oliver’s grandfather. He talked about Katie’s dad as the grandfather, and said he can’t compete with him. I laughed, of course, and said there is no competition, that Oliver is just blessed with six grandparents, a modern family. So Marc said, “Well, maybe I can be the one who talks to him about death and impermanence.” That is SO MARC. It made me laugh, and I said yes, you can be the one who does that. He said someone needs to.
Marc is Jewish, but he’s Buddhist (aka JewBu). He meditates a lot on impermanence, after a lifetime of thinking about and fearing death. He remembers being a very little boy sitting in his closet being terrified about death, and believing, therefore, that nothing has any meaning. Like me, he read a little too much Camus as a kid.
I think about death too, not at all in the same way he does. Unlike Marc (though he may have changed his views by now), I think it’s death that gives our life a way to have meaning. Two days ago I had two pretty intense experiences thinking about death, which is unusual for me:
You know how I like to think about the way everything is seamlessly connected to everything, that there are events on the road ahead of me, already on their way to me, and I am unaware of them. Some are inevitable and some may easily change course. I am on someone’s road heading toward them in the same way. The day before yesterday I was driving on the highway and suddenly wondered if I would be doing anything differently if I knew I was going to die later in the day. It felt absolutely true in that moment, not just an idle thought. Well hell yeah, of course! I’d be spending those hours with my family, telling them how much I have loved them and how much they have meant to me. But you know, I also have to make a living. I’d rather not have spent most of my last hours reading a crappy manuscript, but there are things we just have to do. I was thinking about the trite thing people say, the very thing I thought, “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow….” but it isn’t that simple. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep in mind that tomorrow might be our last day so we shouldn’t waste today.
That night I woke up in the middle of the night, like I always do, and started reading. Like I always do. I wasn’t feeling upset about anything, worried, unhappy, and I didn’t feel bad physically like I sometimes do in the middle of the night. My tummy often hurts when I wake up. But that night I was just reading the book for my book club, and all of a sudden I became gripped with a fear of dying. Just caught in the clutches of existential terror. All I could think was that I love my life so very much, I have so much to love, so much joy, so much to do, each day I love it so much and I don’t want it to end. I think that’s happened to me only two other times in my life.
It probably won’t happen, but I might die today. Odds are seriously against it, and thank heavens for that. I’m just going to be at home all day and night, not going anywhere, and I’m in good health as far as I know. But just in case, know that I loved my whole life. Every little bit of it, the beautiful and horrible and sublime and ugly. I’ve loved so many people and have cherished the love from people in my life. I’ve noticed sunrises and sunsets. I’ve laughed myself into tears as I drove into the desert. I’ve dearly loved books and poetry. I got to wake up. I’ve launched three people into this world who are making it a better place, and now there is another member of my family in this world. I started as Pete and I will end as Pete.
With an overfull heart, I stood in front of Notre Dame, in Paris. I drove through yellow fields to see the cathedral at Chartres. I took the train through the Chunnel, and another train to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
I drank beer in a pub called ‘Jude the Obscure’ in Oxford, England.
I slept on a boat in the middle of Halong Bay, in northern Vietnam, amid the karst pillars. They were eerily beautiful at dusk and dawn.
I sat in a little boat in the middle of the Ganges in Varanasi and watched the nighttime ceremony to put the Ganges to sleep, I watched cremations, and then I watched the morning puja.
Standing atop Macchu Picchu, I saw a sudden and enormous flock of green parrots appear and fly right in front of me, and a heart-shaped hole open up in the clouds behind them. I panted in the thin air of Colca Canyon and watched condors glide on the air currents, and I rode a boat across Lake Titicaca.
I fell off a bicycle in Amsterdam and was stared at by a stern Dutch man.
I ate an amazing waffle with chocolate and strawberries in the Grande Place in Brussels.
I’ve snorkeled off the Yucatan so many times, and off Honduras a couple of times.
I saw Ireland with Katie, my pretty green-eyed Irish girl. We seriously underestimated how long it would take us to drive from Derry to Belfast — on July 12.
In Dubrovnik, I learned how to see where the war destroyed the buildings by understanding the various colors of the tile roofs. I was surprised by Zagreb.
I rode a boat down the Mekong River in Vietnam and drifted among the floating market boats, guided by a man who fought as a soldier for the south — “on your side,” he told us. A very small Hmong woman held my hand and led me over rocks in Sapa, in northern Vietnam near the Chinese border.
So many wonderful Lao people greeted me with Sabaidee, and I learned that I love BeerLao. I fed monks in Luang Prabang, and ate enormous feasts in an alley lined with food vendors, $2 for a huge plate and a giant BeerLao.
One Thanksgiving I stood in front of Angkor Wat waiting for the sun to come up.
I saw proboscis monkeys on Borneo, and a naughty macaque stole Marc’s drink.
Standing in the great hall of the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, I cried because I never thought I’d see it. I stared up at the brilliant mosaics I’d studied in an Art History class in Alabama.
I rode in a very quiet boat on very still water in Inle Lake among the stilted houses of Burmese people.
In Oaxaca I got food poisoning.
I bathed a pregnant elephant in a river in Sri Lanka, and chased a sperm whale in the Indian Ocean.
I drank some java on Java, and fought off monkeys in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, in Bali.
My beautiful life has been a creative act and I rarely took it for granted. I have felt like the luckiest person in the world. I hope the very same thing is true for you, in whatever form your life has taken.
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I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, real fire and brimstone stuff. The sermons kind of emphasized how terrible and worthless we were, the songs all sounded like dirges, and hell was as real as the hard pews that bruised our tailbones (because cushions are not mentioned in the Bible). In fact, and this is one of my favorite stories, when we were kids my sister and I played church. This meant getting a little cup of juice and a saltine, and passing the cracker back and forth, breaking off a tiny bit and putting it in our mouths while looking as miserable as we possibly could. That was the realistic bit. It wasn’t about the cracker or the juice, it was about the misery.
Over time I completely lost my faith and came to believe in a random universe, and then I spent some years as a Quaker, and now I’m probably appropriately called an agnostic. I just have no idea. It’s hard to say no to any possibility — my own daily life has taught me that, in spades. So I have no idea, though my default stance is mostly atheistic. I mostly believe that when I die, I am dead. That is that, the end of it, no more. To the degree I live on, it’s in the lives and memories of those who knew me, who came from me. Just about the only belief I do have is that my childhood lessons about what heaven and hell are like were all wrong. I don’t believe in those ‘places’ at all.
I love my life. I love that I get to be here, that it is so beautiful and terrible and thick and joyous and sorrowful. That there are so many places to see, experiences to have, people to love, things to do, pleasures to relish, and pain to grow from. I love all that. I don’t want my life to end, and of course I know it will. When I think about facing that final moment of leaving, it fills me with terror even though I haven’t been able to say exactly why. When I cross that threshold, my thought is that I will simply be no more, so it’s not as if I will “know” anything, it’s not as if I think I will be experiencing anything after I make the transition.
And then I read this line in The Death of Bees. One lovely character has this thought, addressed to his dead partner: “I hope to die in my sleep, Joseph, not knowing, just closing my eyes and forgetting the things I am leaving behind. I don’t want to die with my heart breaking.” And THAT is it. That’s the fear, that’s the terror. To be dying with a breaking heart, to be clinging desperately and clutching the door frame. My Aunt Charlotte died like that, screaming that she did not want to die, and that just haunts me. What a horrible death. I am afraid of that. If it happened right now I would feel that way. NO NO NO, I do not want to die, I am not ready.
What a funny place to find myself, after spending periods of my life trying desperately to die, or hoping it would happen. Life is long, as Ishvar says in Rohinton Mistry’s gorgeous and heartbreaking book A Fine Balance. If you’re lucky. If you are lucky, life is long and you travel on so many paths, most of which will be surprising, and if you are very lucky, like me, your life gets better and better and better. I hope with all my heart that my life is so long I get to learn what it’s like to be a dusty old great-grandmother, for a couple of generations of children to call me Pete. And I hope that when my time comes, I am graceful.
And on that note, happy Wednesday, y’all! 🙂 What a strange juxtaposition!
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I’m flexible about names, apparently. Eight have been associated with me:
Lori Dawn, the two names I was given at birth
Peters, the last name I had at birth
Snyder, the name I got when my stepfather adopted me
Galloway, the name I took when I got married
Alyssa, a new middle name I added when I legally changed my last name to Stone
H____, the last name I took when I married
My name has been complicated, beginning when I was about 12 years old and my mother remarried. To be fair, back then (c1970), it was super super weird to have a different last name than your parents. Super weird. Divorce was weird. I didn’t know any other divorced kids. And since we moved every little bit, every few months (or less), having to explain why we kids had a different last name from our parents became too much trouble so we all started using the last name Snyder. (Eventually he adopted us so it was our legal name.) But when I was Snyder, it broke my father’s heart. And when I said I wanted to use Peters, it enraged my mother, who hated my father and I gather hoped he would simply disappear entirely. My name was just such a source of stomach ache and trouble.
So when I married Jerry, and got the name Galloway, hallelujah! A name that wouldn’t get me in trouble anywhere. My name, finally, a name of my own. Even still, all these years later, once in a while I accidentally write Lori Galloway — sometimes I notice I’ve done it and sometimes I don’t. In a deep way, that feels like my real name, still.
After Jerry and I divorced, I kept the name Galloway. It was my kids’ name, and anyway it was mine too! But at some point, in graduate school, I decided it really was not my name and I wanted a name of my own. I wanted to choose a name that would just be mine, a name that would forever be mine and that wouldn’t cause me any trouble, ever. And so I thought and thought and thought. I didn’t want a name that had ever been associated with me, all of which were fraught in one way or another. I thought and thought and thought. I thought about meaning, I wanted a name that meant something deep for me, something that reflected a solid place — I thought of that line from Stairway to Heaven, “to be a rock and not to roll.” Yeah, I want a name that is like that. So many of the names I considered were too far afield — Biblical, Arabic-rooted, etc., and I’m a way-too-white girl to carry that off. Finally, a friend said, “What about Stone?” It was a thunderbolt, so very perfect. YES! Stone! That’s so perfect. Lori Stone, that is so perfect, and it has no connection to any other name I’ve ever had. MY name, my very own name, just mine. Added a new name as long as I was at it, another name with meaning (Alyssa means “sane one”) and since I was a student I was able to do it very cheaply with legal services through the university. The court gave me a paper with a kind of silly scroll printed on it, and the clerk handwrote my new name. Lori Dawn Alyssa Stone. My very own name.
About a year later, I was filling out a form that asked for my mother’s maiden name and without even a pause I wrote Stone. WHAT??? How in the world had I not realized that, how in the world had it been so gone in my mind? It was Big Daddy’s last name, my beloved Big Daddy, Harve Stone. There was nothing obscure about the name, and yet it had completely slipped out of my mind when I picked it.
I just think that is so so hysterical. Paging Dr Freud, although I don’t know what he would say about it. I don’t know why it was so absent from my mind, I can’t even make up a story where it makes any damn sense at all.
Marrying and taking Marc’s name gave me pause, but I liked his last name and I’m loose about that kind of thing. But it was always a problem, since I write publicly and he is a therapist and doesn’t want his patients to find me and learn about me or him (and me neither, at this point, since it was one of his crazy ex-patients who stalked and tried to sue me). And so I live between names again — publicly and in Austin as Stone, and professionally and in NYC as H___. Both names feel normal to me, but I do get in a little trouble now and then. Which name have I been using at my hair salon? Who knows me with which name?
I think psychology is the most fascinating thing — the human mind, the human noise we all make, the human flailing and thrashing, the human heart, the human trying so hard, the human push for meaning. Whenever I think of this one, it makes me laugh so hard, but it also touches me. Oh, little me, what was going on there? What was that about?
Happy Tuesday y’all, we’re getting so close to Christmas! I hope you feel mostly ready, and mostly happy. xo
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It’s a mistake to think categorically, almost always, and that’s especially true when it comes to categorizing people. It becomes so simple to act as if one is an extravert OR an introvert, as if those categories tell you a whole lot about someone. They do tell us something, but you can be so wrong. One of the longest-running “arguments” I’ve had started in 1998; Sherlock swears I am an extravert and I know damn well I’m an introvert. I am, no, really, I am.
The confusing thing is that I spend so much time with friends, at gatherings. I seek them out, and am grateful when I am sought out. If I go more than 2 evenings in a row at home by myself, it’s kind of odd. What kind of self-respecting introvert am I, then! After writing yesterday’s post, thinking about all my precious friends, I saw this video:
She talks about the critical importance of living in the moment, and that’s when something clicked for me. When I am with my family or friends, I completely forget myself. I lose my self-focus, I am not in my head. I am in the moment, almost entirely. Momentous, moment. Us. And so I feel very alive then, those moments are the ones that stay with me, not the moments I am sitting in my house. I love that down time and need it to recover. I need the quiet of my own time at home. I love being by myself and am undaunted by doing things by myself — movies, concerts, restaurants, road trips — I enjoy my own company. But it’s so different. I get to swirling around, moving through time. Remembering the past, anticipating the future, wondering, imagining, wandering. And rarely in the immediate moment.
Lately I’ve been developing a meditation practice, and perhaps that will help me stay in the moment more easily, even when I’m by myself. That would be great. Getting lost in something creative also helps me be in the moment, and strangely enough, so does reading if the book is compelling. (Isn’t that weird? Immersing myself in a fictional world, going somewhere wholeheartedly in my head like that, keeps me in the moment?)
Like Marina Abramović and so many others, I think being in the moment is a great goal. If you think about the times you remember in your life, the times you value, you probably don’t call to mind all the times you were worrying about the future (except as a vague, generic ‘I was so worried that whole year’ or something), or fiddling around on-line, wasting your time. So the goal is more of those moments that stand out, that felt fully alive, the moments you share in some way. I think it’s about time for another digital sabbatical (I took one January, 2012). Time spent with friends and family. Time spent immersed in work — because a girl’s gotta pay them bills — and time spent in creation. With friends and family when I’m with them (that’s one’s easy). Working when I’m working (that one’s hard). Creating when I’m creating (ditto hard). Not checking email, notchecking facebook, not just “checking something really quickly.” We’ll see. Report to come.
But today I am heading to New York City! I hope it’s a wonderful Friday for you, and safe flights for me. xo
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Well, it has NOT been much fun to be me the last few days. I’ve had some kind of bad stomach mojo and haven’t felt like eating much of anything except some rice. Yesterday I ate a bit of salad, but whatever I eat ends up making my stomach hurt so badly. I suspect it is a virus of some kind because I ache all over and my head hurts in that particular way. Yuck. I find myself longing for one of my amazing creamy green smoothies. I long to be able to get up at 6 and take my neighborhood walk. Instead, I’ve been mostly lying in bed with my laptop, working and doing some various moaning and complaining.
Feeling sick when you live alone isn’t that great, if you ask me. It gets so easy to start feeling so boo-hoo sorry for myself, oh poor me. And yet……
I’ve been everything but alone in so many ways! One wonderful Austin friend texts me throughout the day, offers to bring me soup or pick up something for me while she’s out, do I need anything at all? Am I up to getting out, or having some quiet time together? One beautiful New York City friend called me yesterday just to say hi, just to hear my voice. And about an hour later, another amazing love called just to hear my voice, she didn’t even have much to talk about. These three friends, my deep boon loves, make it impossible for me to get lost feeling sorry for myself (and also to get lost, because they’re watching out for me!). Another Austin friend, my health coach actually, volunteers to bring me food if I’m running out of anything.
This is such a surprise in my life. I’ve always had friends, it’s not that, but I’ve never had friends in the way I do now. It may have something to do with ways I’ve relaxed and changed and opened, ways I am more easily real and vulnerable(lite) with people now. And it is probably also true that I know how to understand what I have now, in a way I haven’t in the past. I remember when we were moving away from CT after living there for 8 months, I was saying goodbye to Marjorie, a truly wonderful woman who had been so good to us. She was the crossing guard at the elementary school so my daughters knew and loved her, but she also organized her friends when she first met us and brought us enough warm clothes — CT warm — to keep my little kids warm through the winter. We were extraordinarily poor and I don’t know what I would’ve done without that help. I loved Marjorie and enjoyed her very sweet company, but it was time to move and so my eyes were on the highway, already packing the U-Haul. Marjorie was breaking down, crying pretty heavily, and (hanging my head here) I remember thinking hmmm, she doesn’t know how to do this. I remember that now with such shame, and with such regret — look at the opportunity I missed with this wonderful human being! She was grieving, we’d meant something important to her, and I missed it because I was just temporary, just passing through, on my way to the next town.
It took me several years to realize what happened with Marjorie and I will never miss those opportunities again. I know extremely well what you mean to me, my friends, but I also know that I mean something to you, and that’s so precious to me. When I fail to recognize that, I not only dismiss your gift to me, your gift of your love and care, but I also treat you badly . . . and yet you are faithful in continuing to care about me anyway. It’s always been hard for me to let myself mean something to people — I talk trash, belittle myself, dismiss myself — and that’s finally shifted over the last several years, as I have aged. I’m so grateful for that, and for you.
much love, and appreciation for the way you hold me in your heart. lucky, lucky me. xo
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I may be the only woman who felt this way, but I could not stand the movie Out of Africa. I found it treacly and irritating. (Ditto Bridges of Madison County. Maybe I’m just missing a girly gene.) Still, there was one line in the movie that I have remembered all these years later, after having only seen it once.
“Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.”
Maybe that line landed on me at just the right moment; it came out in 1985, the year Marnie was born, and I can’t think why it would have resonated with me then but it must’ve, because I remember the line so clearly even as I detested the movie.
In elementary school, I had a little friend I’ll call Susan. She and I played together on occasion; I have a photograph somewhere of the two of us standing there, dusty skinny legs and angular arms, our heads tilted together. One of us is holding a dog and we’re squinting into the sun. I have no idea who took the picture. Shortly after it was taken, my family fell apart and we moved to San Antonio and I never saw or talked to Susan again. Somehow, when I was in my mid-20s, I learned that she’d been murdered. She’d come home to her Austin apartment one night after class and apparently surprised two or three burglars. They raped her multiple times, stabbed her repeatedly, put her in a garbage bag and took her to the lake, where they drowned her. The murder was so vicious her murderers received the death penalty.
When I heard that story (and in all the years since) I felt entirely haunted by that little photograph of us as children. We had no idea — of course — what waited for her down the road, where her life would end. Of course, who does. But the idea that that was going to be her end makes me peer closely at the little black and white photograph. I don’t know exactly what questions I ask; all the questions I can manufacture are stupid and meaningless, and yet I ask them anyway. What if we’d known? Would she do anything differently? Would I have? What waits at the end of my road? I don’t believe in predestination, in a predetermined fate, but I still wonder about this. It really does haunt me, not to make too loud a thing about that. Once all the degrees of freedom are gone and the end comes, what will it be?
I’ve been thinking about this as Breaking Bad comes to its end. I’ve watched the whole series four times. Start to end (wherever that was at the time I was re-watching it) four times. Whenever I’d start again, back at the pilot, I took renewed pleasure in watching, catching things this time through that I’d missed, knowing a little more and so seeing the clues that were laid in the scene that I hadn’t known to catch. It was the pleasure of being in the hands of a brilliant storyteller, someone who really knows what he’s doing. Pleasure, entertainment, thrill, agony, story.
In the days before the finale, AMC did a marathon showing, pilot through to the finale. I caught one of the early episodes a day or two before the finale and I couldn’t watch it, it broke my heart too much. Because even without knowing yet what would happen in the final episode, I knew where the characters were going to end up. I knew the end of their road, and seeing them before they knew exactly where they were going was just too painful. It had shifted away from entertainment; I knew something they didn’t know, I knew just how badly it was all going to go. And even a character I mostly detested, like Skyler, I couldn’t look at her. She did the things she did, but I couldn’t bear to see her, knowing that she was going to end up on her knees in the middle of the street, screaming for her daughter. Marie, cannot look at her, no way, not knowing what happens, and she has no idea. Hank, I turn my head away. There they all are, living and eating and working and scheming, maybe, innocents to their endings. But not Walt, seeing him in an early episode didn’t break my heart at all, it just filled me with an even greater desire for his punishment — but everyone else, everyone in his wake, I couldn’t bear to see them.
When I was younger, my visions for the end of my life were invariably terrible. I didn’t think I’d make it out of my teens alive. Later I’d have images of myself thrown from a car wreck, dying in a ditch. And sometimes I wondered if I would survive my own periodic suicidal impulses — and I’m so grateful that I did. Now, and for the last several years, my imagining is that I’ll just drift off to sleep one late night as a 90+-year-old woman. Or maybe I’ll be mildly ill, mostly just ancient, and my kids will be around me. Or maybe they’ll be singing to me as I drift away, a favorite thought of mine. I heard such a story last week, and it also happened like that to someone else I know. But like everyone else in the world, I don’t know! I don’t know, and I am so glad the earth is round so I cannot see too far down the road at one time.
Life is so poignant. We’re mostly all here just kind of flailing around, doing the best we can, trying to do well by ourselves and by others. Some people are here stirring up trouble to varying degrees, but even they’re just kind of flailing around (mostly). And really bad stuff happens, really unfair things. There we might be, at a moment of success, and on the rise we see a car coming, a truck maybe. And there it is.
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What is the essential existential verb? TO BE. If you want to talk about existentialism, that’s where you must start, work, and return. Before I do my little rant, let me establish my “existential girl” cred:
When I was in elementary school, I read way too much existential literature for my own good. Camus was always in my back pocket.
My true existential crisis came when I was 15 years old, lying on the street in a dark alley on the bad side of town one winter night staring at the sky, abandoning my belief in God and realizing that whatever it is, it is in me and up to me.
Although I adore Macbeth, my favorite Shakespeare play is Hamlet, and in graduate school I memorized the entire first and second acts (no I was not avoiding writing my qualifying paper yes I was shut up). Hamlet’s soliloquy tears at my gut, no matter how many times I read it.
When I was in Paris, after seeing Notre Dame my first pit stop was the graves of Sartre and de Beauvoir. And to their favorite cafe, after that, to sit and write (but not to smoke, no thanks).
I am philosophically minded; my favorite publication of mine was coauthored with a brilliant and lovely philosopher who specialized in aspects of existentialism. I toyed with the idea of getting a second PhD in philosophy and finally decided it was time to start living, after a 9-year step-out of life to get my education. I was 45, it was time.
So there’s my cred. After my first suicide attempt, doped up and zombified on Prozac (which did not work well for me, made me a sleepy amnesiac), I met a man who mysteriously told me that I was all wrong about existentialism, and that shamans appear when you need them. I still don’t know what the hell he meant, but I think of him and laugh when I see something like this:
But here’s what I think now. It’s not about this masturbatory mind game of existence preceding essence, it’s not about killing old gods, it’s not about discovering or creating the “meaning” of life, and here I must take my primary diversion. The “meaning” of life. I cannot think of a stupider question to debate or spend your life mulling. What does that even mean, the “meaning” of life! What could it mean, externally, concretely, objectively? What does “love” “mean”? I love my children with all my heart and bones and guts and blood, and that’s what it means: I love them, I would sacrifice anything for them, they are the most important people in this world, I love them. Meaning? And I’m not trying to get abstract and stupid and talk about the way words are simply empty symbols. Bullshit. People get twisted around the axle asking silly unanswerable questions (e.g., “What if there was nothing instead of something?”) as a way — in my opinion — to avoid asking harder questions. My question in response to that one is what would the various answers mean to you? So what if there were nothing, what would that mean to you? What if God doesn’t exist (an unprovable question anyway) — what would that mean to you? What if he does, what would that mean to you? Staying focused on the unanswerable “big” question is just a way to avoid the unsettling question. IN MY OPINION.
Instead, it is. Life is. The world is. It bes. I be. You be. We be. Life is, it is. The sky is, and it is full of clouds. It is. I see it, I experience it, and if I am present in the moment it is glorious. And that’s life. Life is, the world is. I am. I still and always think Vonnegut nailed it in Cat’s Cradle with the Bokonon song about getting to be some of the mud that sits up and looks around. That is it. What could any of that “mean” anyway? You might want your life to have a particular kind of meaning — maybe you want to help the helpless! So go do that, and you will feel the value of doing what matters to you.
Stay here, stay now. Living in the past, you miss life. Living in the future, you miss life. You’re just bopping around inside your head if you do that, and there it is, going right past you and you’ve missed it. It’s hard to do, and I’m always trying. I used to live most of my present living in the past and I’ve noticed that is happening less and less often. I’m less often living in the future too (which, for me, meant worrying about my future). I still go there, especially in the middle of the night, but it’s not an obsession. My big challenge for being right here at this moment is just distraction by the thoughts in my mind, thinking about things like this for example. I’ll get in a muddle, thinking about things like this, and there I’ve missed those two birds scuffling on my feeder and the fact that a breeze is kicking up and the sky shifted the light in some way, and what’s going on outside?
Maybe now that I got this out of my head I can just go be. You be, too.
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This is finally a much more upbeat post than I have felt like writing for such a long time (and it gets kind of funny at the end). I’ve had my moments of happiness, and cherished the hell out of them — and I even had a bit of bliss over some laundry one sunny day. But it’s been extraordinarily hard lately. In response to a comment on yesterday’s post, I accidentally came up with a good metaphor for where I am right now. I’m a crocus, a daffodil, poking my little head up through the frozen ground that seems dead but it isn’t. I’m coming up to the sunshine, coming out to the fresh air. And not to go too far, but one of these days I’m going to be beautiful.
I didn’t think I was going to be able to stop crying — I was like Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, that great prolonged scene where she cries nonstop. She cries in the shower (yep, I did that a lot of times), cries while writing (oh yeah, definitely), wakes up in the middle of the night and breaks into tears (yeah), walks and cries (mmmhmmm…). And I just couldn’t stop! It was loud and snotty and everything stayed soaked, hour after hour. How could I cry that much, surely it was going to stop but it just didn’t. The pain in my chest was excruciating.
And then something kind of magical happened. It really did. Megan had mentioned this book and I tend to like the same books she likes, so I requested it from the library. Well, it came in much earlier in the week, but Thursday morning I tried hard to stop crying for a few minutes, washed my puffy sad face, put on sunglasses, and drove over to the library to pick it up. I was working (well, ha, kinda) so I put the books on the coffee table and tried to work. Too much bawling and sobbing, too much need to get up and lie on my bed brokenhearted. Maybe a massage, no not now. Maybe….nah. I finally decided to run a very hot bath and put some relaxing-smelling salts in, and oh maybe I’d try to read a little bit. I looked through the two books that had come in and chose the one Megan recommended because it seemed easier for my swollen little mind to deal with.
The book is The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness: A True Story, a memoir of a professional storyteller who got thyroid cancer and was cured, but lost his voice. Each chapter (more or less) opens with a fable, a story, from different countries and cultures around the world. Of course each one is relevant to the chapter to come, and I don’t think I’d already heard any of them. Maybe one. Anyway — it’s a wonderful book because it’s all about the human need (my emphasis, my interpretation) to find stories in our experiences to give them meaning. And also that stories can help us in immeasurable ways. One of the little stories gave me a gut punch, more on that after the story. Here it is, and it comes from India:
“There once lived a man who set off to look for truth. He scoured the world in search of it, giving up his possessions, his family, his home, all to search for truth.
After many years of wandering, his travels took him to India, where he heard tales of a distant mountain. Atop that mountain, people told him, he would find that place where truth resides. For many months he searched, until he found the mountain of which they spoke. He climbed for several days until he finally came to the mouth of a cave. He called into it and, a minute later, his call was answered by the voice of an old woman.
“What do you want?”
“I seek the truth.”
“Well, you have found me.”
He entered the cave and there, in the back, saw the most horrific creature he had ever laid eyes on, huddled over a fire. Her eyes bulged out, one further than the other, and bumps covered her face. Stray teeth stuck from her mouth, and her long tangled hair hung down in matted strands.
“You?” he said. “You are truth?”
Though shocked at her appearance, he stayed with her and found that she was, indeed, truth. He lived there many years, learning her ways. Finally, as he prepared to leave, he asked how he could ever repay her for all she had done for him.
“I would simply ask this,” she said. “When you go out in the world and speak of me, tell them I am young and beautiful!””
First, what?? And yet there’s something in it that bugs me, that pokes at me. The timing could not have been better for me, because there was a big huge screaming loud truth that I had been using all my various powers to ignore. Fingers in my ears, lalalalalalala, hahaha! But it was making me sick to my stomach, making me jump out of my chair and pace, before I’d even realize I was doing that. I knew, I really did. I knew. I knew the truth I was willing myself not to know. So I forced myself to write my husband and tell him I still had hope we could figure it out, I didn’t know how but I was desperately hoping, and I needed to know how he felt. A few hours later, he wrote and said it’s over, he loves me, and he hopes he can find someone else. WELL I KNEW THIS. I really, really did. I knew he felt that way. It was in the things he didn’t say. It was in the way he consoled me when I was crying on the phone, telling him how much I missed him — and he’d say oh, honey. I knew it already. And it was hideous and I thought it just might kill me. I had asked for the truth and he gave it to me, and I imagine that was hard for him to do that, knowing that I was in such a different place.
And then I read that story, and it gave me something very deep in my gut somewhere. I stopped crying. I just stopped. And I haven’t cried since. (And note: the truth was that I am unwanted, by someone I love! Heartcrushing.) I’ve wobbled a little here or there, but I just haven’t been crying. I slept through the night. Yesterday I went to the garden center, and to Miguel’s for some really beautiful pots for my plants, and a gorgeous sky blue birdbath (because a birdy’s gotta drink doncha know).
I don’t know why that book and that story in particular moved me so far along. I’ve thought for a long time about truth (it’s one of my tattoos, actually). I love that line they have in AA: the truth may set you free, but first it’s going to really piss you off. Maybe truth asks you to tell others that she’s beautiful and young because otherwise people would stay away — who wants to seek out a hideous grotesque monster? But it’s hideous and grotesque when you’re not looking at it, if you really need to look at it. And maybe especially if you already know it inside.
One thing I really love about the book, and about this whole idea, is the power of story — and that it is the human enterprise. Very few things will piss me off quicker than someone telling me, when I’m in the midst of trials and tribulations, “everything happens for a reason.” GET OUT OF MY WAY, because it’s not going to be pretty. I think lots of people believe that there is a marionette dude in the sky, pulling strings and making things happen, and we just don’t get to know the why of it. But I think these things happen to us, sometimes terrible terrible things, because life is like the honey badger: it don’t give a shit. Things happen, and unfair things because life also doesn’t know from fair. The story comes out of us. The story comes as we struggle to find meaning in our lives, as we try to understand the humanity of our experience, the universality of it. And sometimes our story changes, because we’ve thought more, we’ve had more experience. Another line I loved from the book is, “There are stories in this world that need to rattle around inside your brain for 20 years before they reveal a final, hidden grain of truth.” I’ll find my first story of what happened, it helps me understand and find some truth . . . but time adds to my story, changes my story. If you and I went through exactly the same thing, your story of it would be different from mine. The story comes from us. Two days ago, a story helped me understand myself, my own story. It shifted my perspective in some way I can’t yet say, but it did.
And just for good measure — and a laugh — here’s that honey badger:
Last Friday I wrote about the top tattoo on my spine, the characters for beautiful woman. You can read it here.
The second tattoo on my spine represents the concept wisdom, which is one of those words whose meaning you just know . . . until you try to explain it, define it. In a self-referential way, it’s also a word that has changed its meaning for me over time, as I have gained more wisdom.
For now I’m not going to offer my definition of wisdom, because I don’t really have one. It’s a deep knowing. There. It’s a deep knowing of something fundamental, and it’s a deep knowing you have learned through experience. I don’t think you can read your way to wisdom.
When I chose this tattoo, I had one very precious, hard-won bit of wisdom that meant more to me through my difficult life than I may be able to say. It’s a piece of wisdom that has stood me in good stead over my 54 years of life. I don’t need to tell specific stories to explain this one, it arises from them all. I do not remember a time when my childhood was normal or typical — the troubles started so early that I have no memories before them. And the troubles were so terrible, so relentless, and while some were given only to me, my sister and brother suffered terribly too. It could be arbitrary, the trouble; perhaps I just happened to be standing in that one spot, if I’d been standing elsewhere I wouldn’t have gotten it. No matter how hard I tried (and I tried very very hard) the trouble was unpredictable. There were some very small cues I picked up — a shift in his forehead, a narrowing of her eyes — but even those were reliable at times and unreliable at others.
By the time I was in elementary school, I’d gained my wisdom, and it is this: the question ‘why me?’ makes no sense. Why me, why not me, why you, why not you, why him, why not him, why her, why not her. I don’t think I’ve ever said “Why me?” once in my entire life, in response to something terrible that happened to me. I might wail and wonder why something happened, but never why it happened to me. I might wonder why bad things come in chains, like my life for much of 2012, but I never wonder why that happens to me. When I hear someone say “Why me, why did this happen to me?” my inner snark asks what makes you so special that bad things shouldn’t happen to you, but luckily I never let that snark out. But it is puzzling to me that people ask why them — why not them? It’s a great piece of wisdom because it means the universe is not out to get you. It really isn’t, even when it feels like it is. God is not out to get you. Karma is not out to get you. Whatever system you believe in, it’s not out to get you.
I didn’t understand this all at once; I came to it by wondering what I’d done to deserve what was happening to me, and having some kind of sense way down deep, so deep it took me a very long time, decades, to find it again, that I’d done nothing to deserve it. That the troubles came from them and were about them, and I just happened to be in the way, I just happened to be innocent, I just happened to look like him, I just happened to be fat, I just happened to leave a quarter in my carpet. I just happened to be. It took me a lot of years — almost 40 of them — to get the fullness of this wisdom. I had the kernel of it as a little kid, but I’d fleshed it out by the time I was selecting my tattoos.
Were I to be choosing tattoos again, I’d still choose wisdom, but it would be a different story, a different kind of wisdom, a kind that looks outward instead of inward. The wisdom I’ve gained in the years since I got the tattoo is the very real value of life, of being alive, of appreciating being alive, of understanding that life is right here in this moment — NOW — that’s it. And that’s it. And there it is. Of course I lose sight of it at times, but it’s wisdom I have, it belongs to me. I nearly lost my life so many times — several times at their hands and a couple at my own — and I both shudder at the thought and cry with gratitude that I am still here. It’s precious. Today is more precious than you can imagine in your wildest dreams. I hope to have a tomorrow, more precious than I can imagine. The sunrise is precious. Little birds are unbearably precious. Having enough food to eat is wonderful. Having even one person who cares that you are alive is enough.
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!
Next Friday I’ll write about courage, another one of those words you think you know until you try to explain it. Happy Friday, y’all.
good thing of the day: the day! today — today is the good thing.
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Last night I went to one of the greatest independent bookstores around — BookPeople, near downtown. I cancelled something else to go to this event, because I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that George Saunders was here, in Austin, promoting his new book Tenth of December: Stories. The New York Times Magazine did a great profile of him recently, titling the article “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” He was utterly charming, and so hilarious I actually cackled a number of times. The whole second floor, where the reading took place, was packed — standing room only, but in the way of a subway car in rush hour. It turns out he’d given his very first ever book reading at the same store, but there weren’t many people in the audience and half were his family. (You do know he’s a Texan, right? Yup, born in Amarillo.) He told an adorable story about it, and when he answered questions after the reading, each answer wandered off into adorable stories, always funny and always unexpected, either in what happened or in the way he’d tell it. I wanted to buy a copy there and have him sign it, but I’d left my wallet at home (I thought; turned out it was in the car. Bummer.).
But I very nearly didn’t go. It was an outstandingly beautiful day today, mid-70s and sunny blue skies. I’d worked hard all day. I’d looked forward to seeing him since the day after I moved here, literally. It’s just hard to get out the door, it’s hard to push myself into the world. Still. Oh, I’m doing it, I am, I’m going, I’m pushing, I’m happy houring, I’m brunching and all that stuff. I am. And when I’m there, I am enjoying myself, often a great deal, but it still has an odd feeling to it and I haven’t been able to figure out what was so odd. Today I realized that I feel like an empty shell — a mostly empty shell, anyway. It’s kind of like my face smiles and shows I’m happy (and I am….), my throat and mouth and face cooperate and I laugh (and I do…..), and my body language shows I’m engaged (and I am…..), and my mind is present and involved (and it is….) but what’s missing, I realized, is engagement by my heart. Or my spirit, or something. It’s not quite that I’m going through the motions, although I kind of am. I feel hollow in a very odd way.
Partly, of course, I’m still displaced and heartbroken and I miss my husband. And he misses me. It feels so odd not to be doing things with him — so there’s a double aspect to it. He’s not there and that’s odd, leaving me looking around, what did I forget. And partly too it’s a test of what I think about meaning, and happiness. Texans are wont to say things like, “oh, I just love winter,” or “boy I really do love snow!” And of course, at least in this part of Texas winter is mostly an idea and snow is rare as hen’s teeth — so it’s an untested love they have. Put them/us in a real winter with long-lasting ugly black snow piles and then let’s talk again. Well, I’m in a similar boat here about being alone. All my adult life I’ve said, “oh, I just love time to myself,” or “boy I’d just relish having all that time like you do.” And yet I’ve never lived alone, since I was in high school really. So now here I am, at put-up-or-shut-up time and let’s talk.
I struggle with meaning now in a way I didn’t before. So I wake up alone, spend the entire day alone working, and in the evenings sometimes I go somewhere alone, or I meet brand new people and do things in their presence. And then I come home alone and go back to sleep alone. I dream alone. I hear scary noises at night alone. I go to a movie alone, and afterwards while I’m driving home alone I think about the movie. Alone. I make dinner alone and eat it alone. I shop alone to fill my lonely refrigerator and pantry, filled with oh-so-neat stuff, all lined up and clean. And now, in a way I never have before, I find myself wondering what it means, what it’s even about, What it’s worth. (This is not about depression to any degree; it’s about the importance of another person in shaping the meaning of things.)
So there I’ve been, my whole loudmouth life, saying that my life is filled with meaning! I find meaning in all the little things, the birds that come to my feeder (meaning! beauty!), in writing and reading (meaning! thinking deeply about things that matter), making my coffee (the pleasure of being mindful during a daily task, and the pleasures of the process), taking a walk (meaning! appreciating the world around me), talking to strangers (ok, that’s hard for me, but …. meaning! trying to cross the divide and really see another person, and let them see me). I do believe those things, and I do believe meaning resides in them. But I’ve always done them in the presence of someone else, or with them, so there was talking and sharing the experience. I’d see the birds and then have a conversation about them, and the cycle of things, how the martins will be coming back soon and last year they had so many babies. I’d take a walk with my husband and we’d talk about whatever we talked about, and I’d adore the trees and the blue sky and the way little yellow-flowered weeds pushed through the bricks.
Perhaps I am kind of hollow right now, hollowed out by all the loss. That makes sense, and I am OK with that. Perhaps I’m just stunned by having to find an entirely new way to live, at 54. That makes sense, and I’m mostly OK with that. But the feeling of hollowness is awful, really. Empty, hollow, a shell, a ghost. I so enjoyed watching and listening to George Saunders read, and I had long periods of forgetting myself entirely and just being in the moment. And then I got in my car alone, drove home alone, and didn’t have someone to tell all about it, to talk about the genius of his voice, the uniqueness of his perspective.
I don’t know. I don’t have a neat ending for this, and I’m not down or depressed, I’m just trying to figure out this whole thing. I know I will, and I know I won’t always feel hollow, but there’s a lot to think about.
Happy Wednesday, y’all.
good thing of the day; the pleasures of taste: bright joyous orange juice, dark silky coffee, seedy chewy bread, toasted. Those tastes and textures, so much pleasure.
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Durkheim thought the distinction between the sacred and the profane characterized the essential place and role of religion — religion was about sacred things, taboo things, things set apart, and the rest, the mundane ordinary concerns, were profane. It wasn’t a distinction between good and evil; the sacred can be good or evil, as can the profane. It was an idea that received a lot of criticism, and was pretty quickly dismissed as not being a universal distinction, but it’s a mistake to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Maybe the problem is the various other ideas that connect to “sacred,” or maybe it’s a limited conception of what the word ‘sacred’ means. If we pull outwards a bit and think that sacred relates to existence, to the 4am questions of life (assuming the 2am questions are smaller, she is so mean to me at work, i forgot about paying that bill don’t forget tomorrow, what am i going to do about this weight i’ve put on) — the 4am questions, what am I doing with my life, how did i get off track with what matters to me, those are sacred. They’re existential, about our existence. Why did Grace die? And now what will we do? Sacred.
When you spend a lot of time amid sacred concerns, returning to profane matters is hard. This is one reason soldiers struggle on re-entry, why they don’t feel as close to others as they do to their fellow soldiers. Compared to life and death, who gives a crap about doing the grocery shopping? Compared to being punched in the face by the loss of a child, . . . whatever. This thing is happening, that thing is going on, the other thing needs attention, blah. Hard to muster the oomph to tend to it. Yesterday, my first day at home, passed in a blur. What did I do? I don’t even know, really; we took a walk in Riverside Park (chilly!), which I remember because I took a picture of it and facebook friends like and comment on it. Oh — yeah. I guess I was there yesterday. I ate breakfast and dinner that my husband cooked for me, excellent meals if I stop and think, remember them. Huevos rancheros for breakfast. Lemony garlic shrimp for dinner. Yeah, those were good meals, he’s such a good cook. But what else did I do? All day long, what did I do? I don’t know. It was all trivial.
You know what people say (me too, I’ve said it) — keep a gratitude journal. Well, guess what! I do. I’ve tried a dozen different approaches, spiral notebooks, text or Word documents on my laptop, pages on my blog, special bound books, all kinds of things. I keep them for a while but eventually stop doing it, as much a function of routine and technique as anything else. I find it simple to think of things I’m grateful for, that’s never the problem. And in the periods when it’s hard to find something I’m grateful for, the search itself is meaningful — that’s when looking hard helps the most. My sister told me about a very elegant system called Grateful160, and it’s just what I need, technique-wise. Every evening I get an email that’s some variant of this:
You can request an email once or twice a day (or 3 or 4 times), and you have a choice of morning and/or evening. I can even respond on my phone, so if I’m out somewhere, it’s still simple enough to hit reply and record what I’m grateful for right then. Then, once a week, the system sends you the week’s entries. You can also go to your page on the site to read or edit them, at any time:
Lately, the things I’m grateful for are large-scale, sacred kinds of things. Ritual. Peace. Strength. Beauty. Love. As I re-enter my regular life they’ll probably become smaller (after this week anyway, with the election on Tuesday [hope I have something to be grateful for there] and my birthday on Tuesday, and then a weekend in the Catskills). Or maybe that’s the challenge — to dig deeper, to keep finding sacred things in myself and my life, even when the events of my life become more profane.
I feel like I’m just watching my life and the world right now, in some way — like there’s a pane of glass between us. It’s clear glass, it’s not obscuring the view, but it’s there. It’s not that I don’t hear what you say to me, it’s not that I’m not paying attention, it’s just that it doesn’t stick, it slides right down the glass. My experience isn’t registering either, nothing sticks. I see and hear and smell and taste, but in the next moment it’s simply gone. I’m sorry if you have to tell me things over and over, and I assume this is temporary, a function of my blanked-out mind in the face of Grace’s death, something I still struggle to believe is real. Wait, what? We’ve been waiting all this time! What? We’re all ready for her. What?
I look out the window and see that it’s a beautiful sunny Sunday. The sky is a beautiful shade of blue, the brilliant sun is slanting toward me in its autumn slouch, the air is nicely cold and the radiators are hissing. There’s a palpable sense of time and place, I can see that through the glass.
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On my way to dinner in midtown last night, I passed a woman talking excitedly on her phone, who said, “and then I got a terrible pain, right in my chest cavity!” Chest cavity? Is her chest empty? Would you ever refer to yours as a “chest cavity?” I thought that was so strange.
In trying to comfort me by giving me a laugh, a friend told me this story: She was in Sag Harbor and a giant yacht — worth a couple million, she thinks — passed by. As it kept going, she saw the name painted on the back: NO WORRY’S. My friend knew me well, because that cracked me up. If only I had no worry’s (apparently having a ridiculous amount of wealth doesn’t protect you from worry’s, though).
As great as it is to find a book that’s so good it ruins you for reading anything else, of course it’s a problem, too. When I read Moby Dick a couple of years ago, I really couldn’t bear to read anything else for a few weeks. Everything I tried felt inconsequential and stupid. Finally, somehow, I found my way back to reading, and I’ve been a little afraid to re-read Moby Dick, even though I want to. Well, now I have to read it again, for a couple of reasons. Have you heard about Moby Dick Big Read? Every single day, a new chapter is released; Tilda Swinton read the first chapter — lovely. It has reignited my need to read it again. But then I hit the Moby Dick chapter in the book I’m reading now, All Things Shining, and the deed is done. As soon as I finish reading this book, I’m re-joining Ishmael.
It’s great fun to read a book written by smart people (who can write) thinking about big things. This book was written for me, specifically, I’ve often thought — two philosophers (check) exploring literature (check) as they think about how we derive meaning (check). And what literature: David Foster Wallace (check), Homer (check!!), Aeschylus (check), Dante (check), Melville (check). See what I mean? Although there are places I really disagree with them, and I find their recurring emphasis on mood a little strange, I applaud and relish their efforts. I’m not finished yet but I’m lounging around in the Melville chapter, re-reading sections for pleasure a few times before I move on to the next. I’ve only ready Moby Dick once, and I haven’t read any scholarship or analyses yet, and in my first reading I was utterly dazzled by the language and the imagery and didn’t dive down into the clearly-there symbolism and deeper meaning. I’ll try to read for that the next time (assuming I can be a little less dazzled by the imagery). But Dreyfus and Kelly go deep into the meaning that Melville layered into this story, and I saw myself in their understanding of Ishmael.
Ahab needs to burrow through and find the one true TRUTH, the final meaning, the solid behindness of it all. Ishmael’s strength, on the other hand (and why he survives) is that he lives in the surface meanings and finds a genuine range of joys and comforts there, without wishing they stood for something more. As Nietzsche said of the Greeks, they were superficial out of profundity. The profundity of living this way lies not only in the ability to find genuine meaning in daily life, but also in the ability to live in the contradictions that these meanings present.
When I got to graduate school, I heard this statement a lot: you’ve got to be comfortable with ambiguity. Well, I like a certainty as much as the next guy, but I think I’m more comfortable with ambiguity, contradictions, and uncertainty than most people. Maybe my childhood helped me with that, maybe growing up in a fundamentalist Christian church helped a little (paradoxical-sounding, I know, because who is more CERTAIN about things than a fundamentalist! — except that in Christianity, there is the essential mystery of the Trinity, and there’s no way to understand it, you can only accept it). I think understanding something of the deep complexity of everything helps with contradictions and ambiguity too. But that’s a topic for a different post.
It’s Friday (and a beautiful one, at that!) — this time next week we’ll still be en route to Burma. I can’t wait….
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