the Just World Hypothesis

I’m here to offer yet another plug for aging. Getting older can be so marvelous, because you start to see with clarity. (Not everyone; I’ve known some bitter, small, mean old people who became concentrated nuggets of ignorance.) But if you’re lucky — or whatever, however this works — you understand more and more. And the funniest thing is that your understanding gets simpler and simpler:

 

  • It’s all one thing.
  • You are who you are.
  • Life happens to everyone, and we all die.

I think it all boils down to that. Just because it’s so simple, however, doesn’t mean it’s simple to talk about. And just because it’s so simple, that doesn’t mean you can just tell other people, younger people, what you have learned and suddenly they have the same complexity of understanding. For me, anyway, it has taken living my years to be able finally to see this.

Simple complexity, impossible to say clearly, but I’ll try, and I’ll start with a social psych principle called the Just World Hypothesis. It’s a more elaborated idea than this thumbnail, but basically it’s a deep belief that we get what we deserve. That if we’re good, good things will come to us. Bad people get what they deserve. Etc. It unfolds into a whole ethical landscape of implications, but at the center that’s what it is. Like me, I’m sure you’ve frequently heard people wail, “Why me???” And then they provide the list of explanations for why X shouldn’t have happened to them. If it’s a health thing, the list includes their health-related behaviors. If it’s an accident, the list includes the ways they are always so careful. If it’s about their child, the list includes the ways their child was innocent and they were watchful parents.

Undoubtedly because of my childhood, the fact that I was born to a couple who wanted to destroy everyone and everything, I was disabused of the belief in the just world. And one freezing night, in an alley on the wrong side of town in Wichita Falls, I thought through it very carefully and solidified my understanding: shit just happens. Life happens to everyone. In a larger way, it’s all random.

And it’s all one thing: Life happens to everyone. Why would we ever think, even for a second, that only “good” things will happen to us? (And yet we do: Shelley Taylor’s work showed that people don’t believe things like house fires, bad car wrecks, serious illness, etc., will happen to them in their futures; that we all believe we’re above average (leading another psychologist to dub this ‘the Lake Wobegone effect,’ when the law of averages alone proves that we cannot ALL be above average.)) We must believe that because of some deep, unexamined reliance on this just world hypothesis.

And so once again I have to leave space for the possibility that I was luckier than most people to have the childhood I had. That’s not Monday morning quarterbacking, or brave, chin-quivering denial, it’s an understanding of the way it’s all one thing. My life is a whole, the experiences I’ve had all along the way are so woven into the cloth of who I am that it’s impossible to pull out a warp thread, a weft thread. It’s impossible to sit here, in my chair at Heaventree, and even begin to entertain some fantasy of what it would’ve been like to have had a loving mother, a father who didn’t try to kill me. A safe home. Security. It’s impossible to do that, the entire cloth of me disintegrates and there could be no “me” sitting here to ponder that question.

Whenever I hear someone ask, “Why me?” my only thought is, “Why not you?” Of course I never ever say that, because at that moment the person asking the question needs compassion and help, and this fact of “why not you” is completely irrelevant. There may come a time in their process when it makes sense to gently talk about it, if it helps them realize that they aren’t being punished, or whatever they are thinking, but never at that first wailing.

But really. Why not you? Why not me? Life is just happening, and often we are just in the wrong place. A knot forms in an umbilical cord. A car veers into the oncoming lane. Cells take a left turn and start dividing wildly. Myelin disappears, plaques form, bones honeycomb. Unexamined parts of ourselves commit an act of sabotage or treason and we won’t recognize it for years. And as impossible as it is to grasp in the thick of it, it’s all of a piece and the landscape of your life, and yourself, are bigger and more vast and complex, and this is one warp or weft thread in your tapestry. When I was a child, of course I had no perspective to understand this, and I mean that literally: those experiences did not have the context of life that followed them, they were my endpoints at that time, and they represented the bulk of my life. Assuming we survive the terrible thing that happens, and have the good luck of living to put it in perspective, there are good things to be drawn from it; we are changed by it, and to some degree it’s up to us how we are changed by it (emotionally and psychologically, at least) (and I mean to some degree it’s up to us).

When my life fell apart at the end of 2012, I was coincidentally reading a book about trauma survivors (one of my favorite topics) called When You’re Falling, DiveI really recommend the book to everyone, because if you are a magical unicorn and nothing bad ever happens to you, then at least you are going to know all the rest of us to whom bad things will happen because we are not magical unicorns — so you can learn a few things to be present with us. I highlighted dozens of passages in the book, but I share these two with this post, and encourage you to click that link and get the book:

“Survival doesn’t really mean anything without acceptance,” John explains. “That’s the paradoxical part. You have to take the thing that’s wrong and own it. Make it into something that has meaning for you. If you try to hide or negate it, it will just eat you up,” he says. “If you’re hoping for things to be other than they are—constantly wondering how or why something happened, or how to fix it—you’re lost. You’ll completely miss out on the graceful time you have.

“When people are in need, you must be present. When people suffer, you must let them know you’re suffering with them.” “The good side of bad acts?” I say. “I would not say that from horror comes goodness. That would be giving horror too much credit. But goodness prevails in spite of horror.

I’m not in the midst of trials in my own life, at the moment, so I acknowledge that it can feel like “easy for her to say.” But if you’ve known me long, you know that I say this even when trials do come my way, and this is part of the clarity of understanding I’ve gained as I’ve gotten older. It’s all one thing — the “good” and the “bad,” who we are, how we live, and that we are who we are with that entire context in place. We came into the world exactly who we are and we live the life we live and it’s all one thing.

It’s fascinating to me how utterly complex simplicity is, but that it can still be simple. Something to ponder on a beautiful Friday, the first day of autumn. xoxoxoxo

in hiding

endure

SO. From my childhood, I developed a sense of myself as a standing ox. (Side note: did you know that ‘ox’ isn’t a different kind of animal than a cow? It’s just a domesticated bovine that has been trained to carry weight, more or less. I always thought it was an entirely different animal.) My idea of ‘standing ox’ is very specific, and I have no idea where it came from, but to me, being a standing ox means being able to stand while being whipped and just keep standing. Maybe even while being whipped with barbed wire — but to keep standing. To keep your head down and stand, to endure, to take whatever abuse is lashed on you. I envisioned myself as a standing ox from childhood on. One of my spine tattoos is the kanji character for ‘endure’ and when a Chinese woman read my spine to me, she read that one as “you able to keep doing hard thing even though it nearly impossible.” I remember her reading of that character most specifically. That’s when I broke down crying, because her explanation of the character fit my own understanding of it so clearly.

So that’s something I can do, and do well. And nota bene: that’s not necessarily a strength. It doesn’t necessarily carry value. It’s stupid to keep standing while someone is trying to torture you or kill you. There is wisdom in knowing when to say ‘no more,’ when to leave, and I don’t regularly have that kind of wisdom. I am too firmly standing ox for my own good — but it is my approach to difficulty, and something I can do without even thinking about it very much.

An ability I do not have, but others do, is to resist insanity. To laugh in the face of gaslighting. To hear the lies and be unswayed by them, unmoved, to have my own psyche be unmarred. Nope, I do not have that ability. Even if I don’t feel swayed, or wonder if the gaslighting and lies are right, it makes me feel like my sanity can’t endure. I feel instantly panicked, it’s hard to breathe, my eyes fill with burning tears, my shoulders rush to my ears, and I struggle to put words together in a sentence. I literally pant.

So you can imagine how awful our country is for me, with the insane Republicans and their alt-right/Fox News-lies spouting craziness, their fake version of “reality” that doesn’t connect at all — this is my specific flavor of the misery, most of us have our own and this is mine. It’s debilitating and I have not been able to develop any ease with it, even after nine months of the administration. I was nearly shredded by the campaign season but I just kept thinking, as most of us did, that there would be no way. No way. Yes way, it happened and every day it’s insane.

Gradually I’ve withdrawn from the world. At first I thought I could fight alongside everyone, and when there are very specific experiences to join, like the Texas Handmaids, or anti-T rallies, or the Women’s March, I can do that. I can link arms with all those others who see what I see, who see what the whole damn world sees, and I can resist. But I can’t participate in the dailyness of it, and one thing I’ve realized here in my Heaventree haven is that perhaps what’s best for me, now, is to more fully withdraw. I’ve unsubscribed from the podcasts I listened to so regularly (Pod Save America and Pod Save the World, and the NYTimes Daily Briefing, etc.), but kept the storytelling ones. If Fresh Air is about politics, I just delete the episode. I don’t look at the Washington Post or the New York Times any more, unless it’s from a specific link to an article about something non-political. If you need to cope with all this by sharing it on Facebook and engaging in dialogue there, I support you — we all need to deal with it however we can in order to get through — but I just can’t do that any more. It’s too painful, too debilitating, too destructive to me personally. It’s not tapping my strength, it’s assaulting my most terrifying weakness.

So I am pulling an ostrich, and I feel a good bit of shame about it. Lucky me, with my immense privilege. I’m white and I own a home in the mountains. My daily life is not under any threat, nor is the daily life of anyone in my immediate family. I live in a progressive state that has mostly good politics. I sure don’t feel wealthy, and worry non-stop about not having work, not earning money, but relatively speaking I am. Lucky, lucky me being able to hide my head in the beauty, here. Lucky me, being able to act as if the government doesn’t exist. Lucky me, hiding in paradise and worrying about ticks.

I’m grateful to all of you who fight and keep all the insanity in front of our eyes, who work to keep all this from being normalized. So grateful. I thank you for carrying the load where I can’t. But if you ever need a standing ox, you know where to find me. I’ll be here at Heaventree, or in NYC, making or consuming beauty in one way or another. Marnie and I are going to collaborate on a quilt (she the designer, me the implementer….drawing on both our strengths!). I am writing. I will bake bread, and make good food. I will be doing yoga and walking and taking photographs. Time to get some knitting done for the winter, which is surely coming. And I mean that in a Game of Thrones way too, because my friends, winter is here.

the monster just needs orange hair, right?

Mindfulness project day 3 underway….day 2 was beautiful. <3 [and new post up on Heaventree]

seeking the mechanism

Since November 9, 2016, all my creative efforts have failed. All my cooking has flopped. My baking, just awful — even things I’ve been making for decades and can make in my sleep. Knitting? Fail, fail, fail, frog frog frog. My writing has been clenched and just kind of awful, though I have had a couple of things that worked, inspired by deep veins of emotion about my family, in one way or another.

Why is this? Why has the election of this monster (and the assumption of complete power by the evilest group of politicians that have ever skulked in the halls of power in our country’s history) had this particular effect on me? I wonder about it all the time, because cooking and baking and knitting and writing are such common activities for me, things I do for comfort, for pleasure, for myself and others, and for a creative outlet. But even uncreative things are failing too, like housecleaning. I bang into things, drop things, break things, knock them over. Putting the dust mop away, I realize there’s a wide swath of dust on the tile in the small hallway, how could I even have missed that, anyway? Like, how would it even be possible, given the width of the Swiffer and the narrowness of the hallway?

I’m less interested in suggestions to fix the problem (except for complete overthrow of our government and restoration to sanity), because I feel like I know the things to try, and have been trying them: I slow down, take a deep breath, create a setting that’s conducive to my enjoyment of the task, be present, note each step, take my time, etc., and still it’s all failing. So, OK. I don’t assume this is some kind of brain damage that’s happened inside me, I assume it will pass somehow. But I am interested in the mechanism, in finding some kind of explanation for it.

I’m sure it will notch right into a larger question that’s also confusing me: why am I this devastated? My own very specific life is not affected, if by “my own life” I draw the circle tightly around my personal physical boundary and don’t include “my care for vulnerable people.” Setting aside my real and surely justifiable fears that the Monster-in-Chief will get the world killed in a nuclear holocaust, this too shall pass, and we’ll get him and all his cronies out of office and if we have learned nothing else, we’ve learned that rules and norms don’t matter one bit and that one person can just sit in the chair and on day 1 sign a bunch of papers to completely change everything. So, OK. We’ll set it right, and in the interim it’s just going to be hard going. Why am I this completely devastated, four months and three days later? And of course it’s not just me, we’re all still shellshocked, pulled inward, trying to figure out how to take the next step. We’re mobilizing, fighting, having small victories and planning big ones. That feels good, it allows for the idea of the possibility of perhaps a spark of hope. (Note the distance to hope.)

But why? There are parts I get; I learned that there are enough people in this country to have fallen for his monstrousness and cast their votes for him, and that shocked me. They walk among us too. I knew they were here, I guess I just didn’t realize how many there were. So is it simply that? I don’t live in the country I thought I did? They aren’t just the fringe lunatics? That’s destabilizing I guess. But it doesn’t feel like the answer.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been running sweeps all around the country, snapping up hardworking people, splitting up families — kids come home from school and their parents are just gone. That’s devastating to know about, it goes against everything human and humane and that I care about. Just typing those two sentences made my breath get stuck, brought hot tears into my eyes, and gave me a kind of panic. But that response feels like a symptom not the cause, and it’s the cause of the enormity of my despair that I’m struggling to understand.

Then I look around the world and see this virus of hate spreading from one formerly tolerant country to another. There was a terrible-wonderful passage in a book I recently read, Ill Will by Dan Chaon. One character in the book, Russell, is an agent of destruction, and the scenes that describe the abuse he had suffered as a child were almost impossible for me to read, even though they were presented in a peripheral vision kind of way, hinting and just letting the taint seep into you through your eyes. When he’s in prison later in life, a counselor says to him: “When you’ve been abused in the way you were, you have a virus. And the virus will demand that you pass it on to someone else. You don’t even have that much of a choice.” Russell thinks, The idea that I passed on a virus, and the virus would turn around and it was my own doom? That was so fucking funny. That was so sad and so funny. [Do read Ill Will, it’s powerful. Here is my GoodReads review.] But YES, a virus. It feels exactly like the world is being infected with a murderous, deadly virus, and I hope it’s not fatal. Maybe that’s why I feel sick.

You don’t have the answer either, I don’t think anyone does. Mark Halperin (senior political analyst for MSNBC and Bloomberg Television and contributor and former co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics) said the election has “convulsed the country” more than any event since World War II, including the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I agree with him. I guess we’ll all grapple with this until we get it figured out, and that is likely to take a long time because every single day the administration hurls more horrors at us. Every. Single. Day. It’s so disorienting.

I want my pleasures back. I want to knit beautiful things again and not have to just rip everything out.

I want to bake sumptuous cinnamon rolls for people. I want to make really delicious vegetarian food for my dinners again. I want to make.

Even though I’m not asking for answers, I am wondering: is this happening to you too? Is it still happening to you?

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

help and concern

a still from The Beatles' movie HELP!, which has zero to do with my post other than the word help, but look at the lads. :)
a still from The Beatles’ movie HELP!, which has zero to do with my post other than the word help, but look at the lads. 🙂

Twenty days ago my life had a completely (completely) unexpected event that plunged me into a very particular kind of despair. There are details about me that made my experience hard for most people to understand, and hard for anyone to really help me, beyond helping me get through the moments, and I had great, beautiful help getting through the moments. And to be honest, this despair landed on a little bit of rocky ground as I’d had a wobbly few days a couple of weeks before it happened.

And to be further honest, my life has its own way of being difficult that is difficult for me, especially, in a way it might not be as difficult for other people. There are so many great things about living in two places (especially when one is NYC!), and as I was recently told, it’s a ‘first-world problem,’ but y’all, it’s an and world, so YES, it’s a good thing and it also has a difficult aspect, constantly uprooting myself and being away from my psychological home, my beloved little place in Austin. It is wearing on me, I’ve been doing it for three years, back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. When I get back to Austin, I always have this hurried sense of needing to get things back on track: get my eating back on track, my routines of yoga and walking and living, my friends and family, my sleep. Eating is especially wrenched in this set-up, because in Austin I eat very carefully and eat vegetarian exclusively which is my deep preference; I eat dinner around 5; I eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, and all moderately — in NYC my husband does all the cooking and it’s not vegetarian and most week nights we eat dinner around 10 and the only fresh veg is the nightly salad, and there’s just an awful lot of fat. It’s wearing, and it might not sound that way to you but it is.

And perhaps the issue is that it is to me, and that’s really the only part that matters when the point is the consequence for me.

Also, and this can’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, I experience things intensely, whether good or bad. I’m perhaps overly sensitive. I’m deeply emotional. In the midst of all the pain I had after the contact by my brother, two different friends said they were very glad that they don’t have my emotional side. I have a philosophical and psychological stance that it’s “good” to experience the things of my life, whatever they are, and that in fact the only way through is through, that going around or burying or ignoring only forestalls the going-through.

SO, to the point of the post. Because my life is rich with beautiful, loving people, they want to help me. Reaching all the way back to when Gracie died in October 2012 through to last week, I have a lot of experience with people lovingly helping, and have some advice about how to help (and how not to help). IF you are concerned about someone, I can boil the language down for you very quickly:

DON’T SAY: I/we are really worried about you. You do this, you do that, you’re too this, you’re too that.

That sounds so good, right? I mean, how could that be bad? You’re telling someone you’re worried about them. See if this seems different:

DO SAY: You’ve been through so much lately. How are you doing? How are you handling it/managing/coping?

This invites the person to talk about their coping, and opens the door for a conversation. The other way might put the person on the defensive, because maybe the things you identify aren’t the problem for them. Ask! It’s easy to have your helping and concern focus on the visible events, but perhaps what’s affecting the person is beyond those things. In my case, the immediate events involving my brother had quite visible consequences, but my ongoing struggle is with these larger issues in my life, the wearing-down of my back-and-forth life, but you wouldn’t really know if that you came at me about my emotional response to my brother, right? People live in a continuous stream, and the big thing that’s happening is rarely just a discrete, completely bounded thing, disconnected from all the rest. An event has personal meaning that you may be completely unaware of, strings and anchors that might be invisible to you, or it might be tugging at a very different thing and making it the problem.

Questions are always good. It’s sometimes scary to pose a question, you may think the other person doesn’t want to answer questions, it may feel intrusive, etc. But “How are you handling…” “How are you managing…” or even “How do you feel you are handling/managing/coping…” isn’t the same kind of intrusion as a probing question about the details of the event.

Thank you, all my friends and family, for the way you step up in my life; whether you do it elegantly or inelegantly I always know that you are wishing me well and wanting to help me. Always.

Helen

cotardIn November 2008 I put myself in the hospital in New York, Weill Cornell/ Payne Whitney, because I was very, very sick. It went beyond wanting to die — I quite literally thought I was already dead. It’s a kind of psychosis that can accompany severe clinical depression, and though it’s not at all common, it’s known. It’s called the Cotard Delusion, and one day I’ll write about it. I’ve had it twice in my life.

But while I was in the hospital, I wrote a LOT. A lot. Luckily I dumped it all in a private blog and I just came across it. This story is chilling, as you’ll see at the end.

* * *

My first morning at breakfast, a very tall blind woman was escorted into the dining room for breakfast. Her blue eyes were strange: one was milky, and the other had a very sharp circle cut out of the blue iris, just outside the pupil. She didn’t wear dark glasses. She had a very strong accent, which I initially thought was German, a very deep and rich voice, and she was beautiful. Her messy hair was piled up on the back of her head into what must have been a twist of some kind, several days before. It was gray, but with reddish-colored ends, so she used to color it. Her skin was translucent, and her features were fine and beautiful. Her lips were full. Though she had a stick, as she called it, she didn’t use it as blind people do, tapping in front of themselves left and right. She just held it upright like a scepter, and held the arm of anyone who escorted her.

She sat at the breakfast table and announced, “Derek. I vant vaffles. And hot cho-co-lat.” None of the staff responded, though it seemed they were preparing her food. Of course she was blind and couldn’t see that, so a minute later she’d repeat, “Derek. Can I please have some vaffles and hot cho-co-lat.” No response, request repeated a minute later, exactly the same. Finally the staff became irritated with her and snapped at her – “Helen, you have to wait and be patient.”

So she’d pick up her vaffle with her fingers and eat it, no butter or syrup: a bite of vaffle then a drink of her hot chocolate. A bite of waffle, a drink of hot chocolate. When she finished, staff would escort her back to her room and she wouldn’t be seen until the next meal. Lunch was always baked eggplant. Dinner was always baked eggplant. And breakfast was always vaffles and hot cho-co-lat. It wasn’t that they only served those things to her – it’s that those were the foods she always asked for. Demanded. The rest of us had to eat whatever was being served, but Helen ate only these things. If she was not eating, she was left in her room.

One evening she appeared in the doorway of her room and said, “Would someone help me make a call?” None of the patients moved, and few people even looked up. The staff didn’t respond in any way at all. So finally, I stood up and went to her, offering to help. We walked over to the phone, I dialed the number and waited while she completed her call, then escorted her back to her room.

I don’t remember how it began, but it became our evening habit that I would walk her around the unit until she tired. She asked my name, and though I said Lori she called me Lora. With her accent, the r sounded like a d. She would come to her door and bellow, “Lora! Lora!” The unit was very small, so our walk was just a square – a short hallway, a small sitting area in the back, overlooking the East River and the FDR, then back up the opposite short hallway, and then across the front sitting area. While we walked, we talked. The insane girl would race past us, up and down with manic speed, and as we rounded the corner the tiny, fat Jewish man who had a 24-hour guard would blow his shofar.

I learned that Helen was from Russia, and she believed that was why the staff hated her. I asked her where in Russia and she snapped at me, she didn’t want to talk about that because she’s an American. I apologized, and said that I’m from Texas, and then she started talking about her childhood in Russia. Her mother was an actress in Russia, I remember that. She was curious about me, and asked me why I was there, which led to long conversations. She scolded me for wanting to be dead. She asked me how I came to NY. She never smiled, but she was very friendly and warm. She said she was there because she’d just become blind, a year before, due to cataracts and glaucoma and something else, and all surgical options were exhausted. She said she was stagnant, warehoused. I couldn’t disagree with her, which broke my heart.

The last couple of nights she opened up more to me, and wanted to lie on the couch in the back sitting area with her head in my lap. She didn’t want me to stroke her head – she said it made her feel like a pet. But she seemed to want to be touched, and to have real contact. So I sat at the end of the couch and allowed her to put her head in my lap, and I lay my hand on her shoulder. The last night, she lay on her side with her head in my lap, curled up in a loose ball, and she pulled my hand into her chest and held it there the whole time.

She asked me what I look like, so I tried to describe myself. Then I also told her the story of my tattoos, and this absolutely gorgeous smile spread across her face. She said, “Lora, you are so silly. This is a silly thing you have done, vy did you do this silly thing.” She teased me, and it was wonderful, a light and touching moment.

She said the staff was going to transfer her to the state hospital and she said, with her deep-voiced Russian drama, “Lora, I vill perish. Lora, I vill perish.” I looked into her eyes and had no response. What could I say?

blindFinally I asked her the obvious question: “Helen, why are you here, on the psych ward, instead of in a hospital for blind people where you could learn how to navigate the world?” She said it was her punishment, because when she lived in France she made her living telling fortunes and reading cards. She was very religious, and believed that this part of her life was as it should be, given by God, as punishment. Then she said, almost in passing, “They said I poured bleach into my eyes, can you imagine such a thing?”

the bright side

Some of the recent events of my life have made me think of this specific lyric:

Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true

But then, since it’s such a catchy tune, the rest of the song shows up:

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I mean, the whole song is on the money. Life IS a piece of shit. Absolute shit happens to good people, to loved ones, and you can’t do a damn thing about it except show up. Unfair things happen and yet no one ever said any of this is fair. Tragedy befalls people, they lose everything, a simple step off a curb turns into the end of it all, a quick trip to the grocery store is the last trip ever made, he suddenly leaves her with no warning, or she suddenly leaves him. A little cough, or an ache in the side, turns out to be the big bad thing and you never saw it coming. A little kid is born into a family that will brutalize and then kill her. Another little kid is born in a refugee camp. Another little kid is trying to stay alive in some other dread setting . . . and the handful of people who own everything don’t give a shit — and in fact, blame those people if you can parse their bullshit language.

But the other part of the song is on the money too! There is a bright side. We show up for each other, again and again and again. We show up even though (maybe especially though) there isn’t anything we can do. There isn’t anything we can say. If you think about it, isn’t that what makes it remarkable? That despite our misery over being unable to fix things for people we love, we show up anyway. I just find that so overwhelming at times, I cry in wonder.

Something surprising and bad happens, and people call. People write and say, “I have this access, how can I help?” Or “I’ve had this experience, let me share what I learned.” Or “I know someone, let me hook you up with her.” Or a complete stranger writes, “Our mutual friend told me, let me help because the same thing happened to me.” Or “Let me have all the books on this topic shipped to you, what’s your address?” Or “I love you.”

I think THAT is the bright side. Sometimes it’s dark and sometimes it gets even darker, and then sometimes you only thought it was dark but it gets darker still. The bright side is that people are all around you, and some may have been in this dark place already, and most haven’t but they’ll go inside with you, so you don’t have to be there all by yourself.

darknessIs anything really different? Isn’t the Big Bad Thing still there? It is.

Is anything really different? YES. You aren’t there alone.

 

Thank you to everyone who reads this for keeping me company. Sometimes you stand in the light with me, and sometimes you show up when it’s dark. Even if all you do is read my words, you are showing up with me. One thing I never quite get is that people comment on my honesty, my willingness to be vulnerable — and the reason I don’t get it is that I’m not doing anything that’s at all hard, or that requires courage, or that is in any way noteworthy to me because it’s just how I am, in the same way that I’m tall and have brown hair and blue eyes and a great big smile. So take this honesty as truth . . . ok, maybe just my truth but I don’t think so: Just showing up for someone is everything. Don’t be afraid to do that because “you don’t know what to say.” Sometimes there simply isn’t anything to say, and if there were don’t you think they’d have said it already? Show up anyway. Sometimes there isn’t anything to do, and sometimes what there is to do feels so insignificant that you feel embarrassed to offer. Show up anyway. Offer the insignificant help anyway. Show up for family, for friends, for acquaintances, for strangers. Show up willing not to have answers, not to fix things, but simply to be there.

Today is my son’s 29th birthday, and another time when he won’t respond to my birthday wishes. Last Sunday was another Mother’s Day I didn’t hear from him. Today marks another year of his absence from the life of our family. I grieve without the finality of grief — grateful for the fact that nothing is final! What there is to say has already been said to me (and by me, for that matter). I’m so sad, it’s hard to bear it but I will. The troubles that are befalling my friends and my loved ones are hard to accept, and my inability to make it all OK is hard to bear but I will. It’s what there is to do.

xoxoxoxoxo