three things: mirrors, growing, and zen

FEED: When my little family and I lived in New Britain, CT almost 30 years ago, in what was clearly the ghetto part of that otherwise-rich place, I got a chance to get away for a bit. We had three tiny kids at the time, all under the age of 5, and we were planning to move to Virginia. My then-husband had already been there scouting places to rent, and he suggested that I go, that he would stay with our kids.

even after driving over that bridge hundreds of times, the view of Manhattan never fails to take my breath away

This was such a glorious thing—just me, after such terrible hardship, a solo road trip (and I adore road trips). And not only that, I would drive through New York City for the first time in my life. I left around 4am, I think, and as I came down through the scary (to me then, and in the dark) Bronx and went over the beautiful George Washington Bridge, with all of Manhattan spreading out to my left, this song came on the radio.

It was popular at the time and I really loved it, and I think it probably came on the radio a dozen times on the 6.5-hour drive, or at least it felt that way. So even now, when I hear the song I just get filled with the same soaring sense of freedom, and the lyrics poke at me too. If you wanna make the world a better place, you’ve got to look at yourself and make a change. Lots to think about there. But at the moment I am just being fed by the beat and urgency of the song, and by the memories it holds for me.

SEED: Over the last couple of very easy years of my life, I’ve often written about feeling the complacency of it, and about wanting to use that easy time to challenge myself, to get out of my comfort zone, maybe to learn something new.

Well. Then the presidential campaign came along and all that ease went away, and now the fact that he’s in office and trying to destroy everything — no more complacency here, or anywhere else. As it all started unfolding, I often felt so many levels of terrible, including some inner levels, some frustration and personal hopelessness: I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to do anything about any of this! I’m not an organizer! I don’t know anything about lobbying, I don’t know how to do any of this! I don’t know how the details of the government work! How can I / what do I / where do I / I can’t!

At one of the marches a speaker said something about this, that it doesn’t matter if we don’t know what to do, learn how to do it. It’s all learnable. Dig in, investigate, read, ask, poke around, assume roles, make things happen! I had to keep reminding myself of that because it’s not my instinct at all. Hell, after I had already made a sophisticated quilt by hand I thought I didn’t know how to quilt so I took a beginner’s quilting class. THAT IS SO ME.

It has been very frustrating, having all those feelings going on at the same time the frustration and fears about what was happening in the government were so overwhelming. It was just too much, too many sources of fear and upset, and yet there was nothing to do but keep flailing in the muck.

Yesterday I realized that I’ve learned a lot. I have really gotten somewhere with how to do these things. It’s less confusing, it’s less impossible-feeling. I have yet to organize a march, and still wouldn’t even know how to begin, but I do now know that I could figure it out. My understanding of things has become more sophisticated. I’ve paid attention somehow, in the midst of all the overwhelm.

And so this terribleness was also an opportunity, as terribleness usually is. And I guess the other thing about terribleness opportunities is that no matter how many times you go through that process, the terribleness feels so terrible that you can’t remember the opportunity part. That’s true for me, anyway. I’m by no means anywhere with it except to say that I’ve noticed the opportunity of it now. There is a very real ALIVENESS to being confused, to doing something new, to having to figure out a new language and new modes and slowly seeing that you have changed as a result.

READ: My friend George gave me a daily Zen calendar for Christmas — the only Christmas gift I received, actually — and as I pulled off all the days’ pages that passed while I was in NYC, two caught my attention:

“Nothing is more real than nothing.” ~Samuel Beckett

“Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere.” ~Bill Murray

That Beckett is so Beckett, right? It’s the kind of thing you can say to yourself and then pause to see what it means and then just get kind of lost. Is nothing real? Is there a realness to nothing? AAARGH! And I don’t know if the second quote is by that Bill Murray, but doesn’t it just give you a sense of calm?

I’m off to babysit wee Lucy this morning, so my day is off to a great start, and I hope you have something wonderful in your day too. xoxox

on not being a monster

There is a psychological theory that says people sometimes incorporate another person into themselves — a kind of psychic possession. It goes far beyond just feeling merged or bonded with another person, it’s deeper and more all-encompassing than that. It’s probably a psychoanalytic theory, and I tend to be very dismissive of them, so my tendency would otherwise be to toss this one on the pyre, good riddance to bad rubbish.

But I can’t. For so so long, decades, I had incorporated my father into me. I was him, he was me. It probably began, as things sometimes do, with my being told over and over as a little kid, “You look just like your father, you disgust me, go to your room.” “You are exactly like him, that sorry son-of-a-bitch, get away from me.” Etc. And there were some ways we were alike; we shared a deep love of reading, and old movies, and an easy sentimentality that left us touched very deeply by the world. I wasn’t old enough then to parse the characteristics, to see that we only shared a few things, not everything. To see that while I may have looked a bit like him, and shared some preferences and a couple of small quirky behaviors and a soft heart, the ways we were different were much greater — and critically different.

So I took my mother’s words to heart and believed her . . . not my first mistake, but perhaps my worst. I grew to believe that I was a monster. That I was fully and literally a monster, and wore a very thin sheen of something else on top that fooled people. A very thin mask, just a couple of layers of skin cells thick, so thin that sometimes you could see through it if the light was right. Sometimes a glimmer of a monster expression would flit across my face, I felt, betraying what lay beneath. When I met Jerry back in 1978, as we were falling in love I warned him over and over: “I’m very bad, you’ll see, very bad, you should stay away.” He’d ask, “But Pete, what’s so bad?” I couldn’t articulate it, I could give no examples, it just was true. It was so true and pervasive and all-encompassing, all I could do was smile sadly for him, shake my head, and say, “You’ll see.”

When I felt all the rage inside me — and it was all justifiable — I was terrified by it, believed it was the monster, and if I let it out a tiny bit it would kill everyone around me. And so, like my father, I often shimmered with rage, but I held mine very tightly. Every time I felt it, I took that as proof of the truth: I am a monster.

I sincerely believed that the entire time I was raising my children. I felt such great relief seeing that they were not monsters, that they were not like me.

When she was a young teenager, Marnie and I read John Gardner’s Grendel aloud to each other, a time I remember with such joy. But when I first saw the cover of the book, my stomach dropped away. It was a painting of me.

grendel

It was exactly a painting of me, even the way the head was tipped up and rage was pouring out of the mouth. That lived inside me, that was me. I wore a pale skin suit over it, but that was me. How did that artist know me?

When I was in my very early 50s — so not very long ago at all — I finally exorcised him. The better way to say it, obviously, is that I finally realized I am not him. I made this image, in the final agonizing throes of that exorcism, to show how it felt:

haunted

That’s my own real shadow, and superimposed is a ghostly silhouette of a photo of him. I added a whip in his hand. I felt utterly haunted by him, and tormented. It was such a relief to finally be able to see the truth of who I was all along: not a monster, never a monster (among a lot of other wonderfuller things).

But what’s heartbreaking and true is that tiny little surprise pockets are still alive, tiny little landmines, and can ambush me. Yesterday I went swimming and wore my two-piece bathing suit. I walked tall, and I was happy to be there, and didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. I was going to swim in the sun, feel the cold water on my tummy for the first time ever. It was going to feel wonderful. I spread out my towel in the sun, looked around at all the young moms with their little children splashing in the shallow end and the lap swimmers back-and-forthing at the far end, and as I started to take off my wrap, I was instantly paralyzed with the thought that the mothers would be horrified because I was scaring their children. That they would grab up their children and run away in fear.

It wasn’t that anyone would look at me and judge my body, my soft tummy a delta of silvered stretch marks. It’s that they would see me as a monster. Exposed.

My eyes filled with tears and I wrapped my arms around myself, rocked myself a little, felt sorry for that little hidden bit that is still afraid that’s true. That’s not true, honey, and it never was. You are wonderful. Come on, let’s go swimming. So I stood up, dropped my wrap, held my own hand and walked into the water with a great big smile. A little boy with blue, shivering lips walked past me in the chilly water and said, “It’s so cold!” and I laughed and said, “It is, but look up at the beautiful blue sky, and those amazing clouds.” He and I stopped and tipped our heads upward, and the only thing that came out of my mouth was a laugh.

the last of those anniversaries

There was a 17-day period last year that was the worst of my whole life, and I cannot imagine such a thing will ever happen to me again. Nearly my whole life crumbled under my feet, and very little was the same at the end of it; mercifully — an enormous mercy — I still had my precious children and I was still alive, but everything else was gone. My granddaughter. My daughter’s desperate longing to be a mother. My marriage. Where and how I lived. My dreams. Poof.

this was me then, a year ago yesterday. makes me cry to see all the sorrow in my exhausted face.
this was me then, a year ago yesterday. makes me cry to see all the sorrow in my exhausted face.

One year ago yesterday I boarded an airplane with three giant suitcases filled with clothes. I didn’t have a key to anything or any place. I flew away from New York, believing I’d never live there again. I left friends, hoping to stay in touch. I left a small number of books, planning to return to pack and ship them. And that’s it. Me plus clothing in bags. Been there before, never thought I’d be there again. (But I survived.)

One enormous loss was the belief that finally I’d never have to move again. I’d lived at the same address for six years, longer than I had ever lived at one address my whole life. Three times as long as I’d ever lived at one address, actually. My 80th move took me there, and I believed — finally, I believed — that I wouldn’t ever move again until I was dead. I fought my way to that belief, resisting allowing myself to believe it out of fear, fearing that becoming comfortable about that would make the pain unendurable if I lost it. But finally I did come to believe it. And the pain was in fact almost unendurable when I lost it. (But I survived.)

One year ago yesterday he drove me to the airport and spoke sharply to me on the way, making me cry even harder. He helped me get my three enormous bags into the airport and then turned and walked away, and I stood there in shock. (But I survived.) Here’s what I said about it last year:

Yesterday was machine gun fire, a giant rollercoaster, take your pick of metaphor. After getting an hour’s sleep, we left for the airport and wrestled my three giant suitcases to the airline check-in desk. Southwest Airlines agents are perky and seem to assume that everyone they encounter is a  happy person, going to a happy place (!) oh-so-happy! She kept apologizing for having to charge me for a third bag, and was insistently pressing on me about the trip while in my head I was screaming, I’m moving, these are all my clothes. This is my husband — we are leaving each other, I am moving, please stop. I sat alone at the gate for a very long time, stunned and blank.

Remembering all this brings the terrible pain back into my chest, the blankness back into my mind, the tears back into my eyes. Waiting for me in Austin was my beautiful and devastated daughter Katie, reeling and blank from her daughter’s funeral just a couple of weeks earlier. My solid and loving son-in-law Trey, reeling too. And they opened their arms, their home to me. They absorbed me with love, put their aching arms around me. There was so much to do — I didn’t have a fork, even. I landed at the airport around 1pm on a Saturday, and by 3pm that same day I’d rented my place and bought a couch. The next Monday Katie and I drove to San Antonio to pick up the car I’d bought.

Somehow, Katie and I bought all the things I’d need to make myself a home. Somehow she found it in herself to press me not to shortchange myself and just get junk, knowing it would eventually make me feel terrible to be surrounded by plastic, temporary things when I felt so temporary myself. Somehow she and Trey helped me make the transition two weeks after I arrived, leaving me to grieve alone in my new home, and leaving them to return to their own lives alone together to continue their grief. (And we all survived.)

A year ago yesterday I stood on scorched earth, a place I’d stood many times, a place I feared ever standing again, a place I believed I could never endure standing again. A year ago yesterday I and my life were saturated by loss and devastation. (But I survived.)

A year ago yesterday, one of those extraordinary serendipitous moments happened to me, as they frequently do. On the flight to Austin, I turned a page in the book I was reading and came upon this poem, the most perfect thing I ever could have read:

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The poem gave me strength and courage, as did knowing that Katie and Trey were waiting for me, and boy the poem was the truest thing ever. I was not done with my changes; I will not be, until I draw my last breath. I had so much pain waiting for me, when I thought I’d already endured more than I could. I had so much heartbreak waiting, when I thought my heart was already shattered completely. I had so much growth ahead of me, when I thought the root was dead, finally, killed by too much suffering at the end of a life of too much suffering.

What I didn’t know, a year ago yesterday, was everything. I didn’t know the pain still to come (so glad for that); I didn’t know the harshness January and February would bring me (so glad for that); I didn’t know I’d find such beautiful things in myself, I didn’t know how strong I am even though I thought I did; I didn’t know my life would become better than it has ever been, filled with so many people who would just open their arms to me and take me in. I didn’t know I’d build a home for myself. I didn’t know I’d be surrounded by people. I didn’t know I’d thrive. And I certainly didn’t know I’d find my way back in New York City regularly, I certainly didn’t know I’d find some way to stay connected to my husband, I certainly didn’t know (and in fact would’ve bet everything against it) that he would change so much, so deeply, and in the ways I most needed. I assume I’ve made similar changes. I didn’t know I would in fact get to travel — didn’t know I’d go to Java and Bali, didn’t know Sri Lanka would be in my future, a year ago. I didn’t know that from my place of such tremendous want, I’d end up with such enormous surplus.

Just goes to show you. It ain’t over til it’s over, no matter how it looks in the dark. Katie, Trey, thank you for the ways you gave ME a home and a safety net, and all your love. Marnie, Tom, thank you for your optimism and support, assuring me I would be better than I dreamed. All that isn’t limited to a year ago yesterday, of course — it came before and it continues after that anniversary, but when I was at my greatest need, you held me. For such an unlucky person I am the luckiest person in the whole world.

burst

burstThis is apparently how it works in nature. Dark cold winter nurtures the beginnings, and then suddenly everything bursts forth, pow! The fields are thick with spring flowers, vegetables start popping up, forsythia explode in brilliant color. In space, I gather matter compresses, pressure, darkness, then explosion into something else, something brilliant.

Human lives operate like that too, to varying degrees. This isn’t always true of course. Sometimes we go through periods of trouble — prolonged periods of trouble — and they whimper to a halt and “normal” life just kind of drifts back into view, and maybe small things are different, maybe we learn a little thing here or there, but mainly it’s just back to “normal.” That has definitely happened to me, and I’ve never paid attention but maybe that’s how it goes more often than not.

But you know, sometimes mysterious things were happening in the dark, seeds that had lain dormant for years, maybe your whole life, are germinating and you don’t know it. Maybe a puzzle you’ve been working on and you just can’t find that missing piece is laid out in the dark and something finds the piece for you, maybe your deep self, maybe something else, I don’t know how it works, I don’t have a theory. (But others do — it’s called post-traumatic growth, read about it here and here, for starters.) Maybe old ways of seeing things fall apart in the dark but it’s dark so you don’t see that they’ve crumbled, until the world turns and the light comes back. The world will turn, light will come back, and so you wait to see what the light will show. Ordinariness again? Or something else?

If you have ever experienced a deep insight, one of those ah! a-ha! moments, you know how miraculous they can be. Suddenly things make sense in a way that has eluded you, and what eludes you now is why they didn’t make sense before. I think there’s a way these things accumulate too, so as you grow and change, other growth and change happens more easily: this leads more quickly to that, you have a shorter way to go now. So the new insight that seems so stunning is possible only because of changes leading up to it, that’s why it suddenly makes sense. An insight I’ve recently had simply wouldn’t have been possible without all the life I’ve had right up to it. The ground was properly cultivated and nourished, the conditions were right, and there it was, brilliant and beautiful.

I’m writing this not simply to talk about my own insight (because it probably won’t make the same kind of sense to anyone as it does to me), but instead to talk about the process, the rhythm, the world of possibilities that exist after darkness. I certainly had a period of terrible darkness last fall and winter — not the worst that anyone has ever had, maybe not even the worst that have ever had, but terribly dark anyway. During the darkness I cried, I hurt so much, I tried to feel it and let it be, I ached and wailed, I tried to be still to see what might come out of it, and I tried to grapple with it in my way, which involved writing. I didn’t know that something good would come out of it; there were moments when I hoped something good might emerge, but there were probably many more moments when my despair was so deep I couldn’t imagine that.

daffies

But I feel like a giant field of daffodils, beautiful and light and impossibly wonderful. My recent insight that makes me the most grateful involves knowing myself and jealousy. I’ve always been such a terribly jealous person, but it wasn’t really about jealousy — it was more about my own deep certainty that I was bad, trouble, ugly, and that all my partner needed was to remember or see that and I’d be abandoned. Because duh. Who wouldn’t be better than me! Anyone, old partners, people passing by, anyone. I was talking to my beautiful and un-neurotic friend Janet the other day (and boy howdy, do I recommend that you have at least one friend who is not neurotic!) about her sometime-boyfriend Robert, and she said he’s insanely jealous. So I told her that I am too, and what it’s about, that it’s about my own terrible feeling of inadequacy. And she stared at me for a minute and then busted out laughing. She asked me why couldn’t I see who I really am? Why can’t I see everything I am? She said she hasn’t even known me that long and she can see it, it’s obvious to her. She talked about her own very unjealous feelings and said jealousy doesn’t keep her with someone (of course it doesn’t), that nothing will keep someone with you unless they want to be with you, and if they don’t, grasping and jealousy sure aren’t going to do that. I did always at least know that, and I knew that actually, it’s likely to drive someone away, eventually (which only adds to the misery of it). Janet just seems to know who she is and she’s confident in a very neat way – not grandiose, she just knows herself and likes herself, can say that she’s hot-tempered, all kinds of things, but all with a kind of acceptance, it’s who she is and she’s fine. Something about her straightforward questions of me, something about the way it seemed so ludicrous to her that I don’t see it, and something about the last few months and what I’ve been through, it kind of whacked me in the head in just the best way. I’m pretty marvelous, and all I can be is me.

So if you are in the dark right now, I hope this makes sense to you and helps you wait and watch. If you know someone who is in the dark right now, I hope it helps you help your friend in some small way. And if you’ve come out of the dark, I say hallelujah for you. And me.