My latest axiom: When in doubt, do the moral thing.
Excerpts from reviews of my unpublished book
… She goes through the mill, all right. No surprise there for fans of such stuff—in Britain they call them “Misery Memoirs,” and demolished mums go mad for them. What is this trend about, anyway—all these haunted women sharing stories with women similarly haunted? When you’re dry to the bone, why crawl out to visit a neighboring desert?
… There seems some universal need for—let’s call it “paying witness.” Which Coughlin does well. She tells the story of her autistic daughter’s life and death with style and wit. It’s really not her fault that we already know the story, thank you, and don’t need to hear it again.
… To quote Ms. Coughlin, “You can’t spell ‘poignancy’ without ‘Nancy’”—and that at least seems true. This book is relentlessly poignant. Every thought this writer has seems blackened at the edges, charred by pain. Even when she’s funny—and believe it or not, she can be quite funny, often at the very moment the ground is collapsing beneath her—a subtle wince behind the prose betrays an unquellable trauma.
… This is the sort of book that should be wrapped in satin, placed in a box, tied with a bow, and cached in an attic for some curious granddaughter to reopen one day, and to recognize.
July 12, 2017
More often than you might think, someone at a party, say, finds it useful to remind me that we may be merely avatars in some alien civilization’s video game. Of course I always say, “of course,” what with the scope of human ignorance being so infinite and all. And if I’m not in a hurry, I might even succumb to a parlor game of what-ifs, which runs sometimes on and on, with other people joining in and imaginations a-go-go. What if we’re part of someone’s dream? What if only I exist? We could be holograms, or twelve-dimensional, or the bedraggled children of God.
I’m patient amid the speculations. After all, it’s all true, for all I know or need to guess. And/or it’s all nonsense. Every sci-fi scenario is just another metaphor for the ineffable. “Truth” itself, like “time” and “I,” is most useful when viewed metaphorically. I myself like to say that life’s ultimate answer is “both,” but even that word’s just another little church-of-one mantra that doesn’t even say what I mean, let alone capture a truth. The idea that my rational mind might manage even the slightest brush-up with (what I may as well call) “reality” —this is my silliest lifelong foible. There’s a reason we need words like “ineffable,” isn’t there? Undefinable, indescribable, beyond words. The notion sits in our vocabulary, underused but plain enough: our mental search for truth is a snipe hunt.
As the Buddhists probably say: we can’t know; we can only be. I think this old truth must have scared me once, and for all I know someday it will scare me again. But these days the never-knowing seems the opposite of scary. I find in it, instead, the sweetest surrender, the soothing/soothful opposite of judgment, attachment, ambition, desire.
For a long time I lived by a mythology of truth and choice. I believed myself a (clumsy) demi-god who knew a few things already and would one day know more, who through ratiocination could lead a choiceful life. But I don’t know anything about any of that anymore—and, for now at least, I’m retired from the business of trying to know. What remains is only the usual hapless tatter, the ragged axiom still clinging to the rod after the drape’s torn down: here and now, I know nothing. Here and now, I choose nothing, I control nothing. I can call myself a sovereign all I want, but even my skin won’t obey me. Not only that, but here’s the thing: it could well be that only through my (abashed but pure) surrender to this self-evidency will I ever, at long last, become whoever it is that (it will surely turn out to be) I’ve been all along.
June 13, 2017
So lonely today. Feeling sorry for myself. Feeling ridiculous. Feeling human. Another little comeuppance I wasn’t quite ready for, so I have to cry my way through it to get to the place where I learn to surrender, and from there to the point where I’m able, however feebly, to change myself so that I don’t make this same old mistake yet again, if I can help it.
What happens to me from time to time: I’m talking with my husband, or more likely lately with another, equally male friend with whom I ‘skype’ for three hours every other night. And often these conversations start out great, and I’m a good listener, and I’m asking questions and sympathizing and paying attention even to bugbear sorrows I’ve heard about a thousand times before. And this can last maybe an hour, and I play my part just fine.
But then—what happens? I slip up. I get seduced, by some little detail of his, into disclosing a detail of my own. Or even worse in my friend’s case, I find myself compelled to make a joke or two, to lighten the tone, to note life’s absurdity. And either way, I end up derailing the conversation by leading it in what must seem random, stupid directions. I become suddenly “myself,” of all things. One thought reminds me of another and I can’t restrain my delight in the cornucopia of worlds that any image, any word may lead to. And to my infinite chagrin at such times, I can’t seem to censor myself, so that I begin to talk in almost exactly the same way I think, which is the way of a honeybee flitting from flower to flower to flower. And eventually my conversation-mate, as you might expect, not only can’t follow me, but finds my stream-of-consciousness rambling to be flippant, confusing, and that worst of worst things, boring.
Last night he called me out—my friend, not my husband, who by now has his own, more subtle ways of dealing with my mishegas. (Henry listens for a while, then pretends to listen, then remarks that he’d ‘better get the show on the road,’ then leaves the room.) My friend tries so very hard to quell his own longtime habit of keeping his frustrations (with me or anyone) more or less completely to himself until, BOOM, he finally just explodes in rage. And I know this fact viscerally well, and it’s probably a major reason I chose him as my friend—not just because such manly explosions are so familiar to me (thanks, Dad! :)), but because the only way I know to conquer a useless habit (in this case my habit of fear) is to face it as often as possible, the way an agoraphobe has to force herself to leave her house every day. I have always tiptoed around such ticking-bomb men, tried to prevent such explosions, while at the same time I’ve tried to wean myself from feeling scared by them. Being afraid of angry men is a useless habit, so I’ve been learning (the hard way, as usual) to confront it, to enter the lion’s den anyway, armed with the by-now obvious fact that the lion is loud but toothless.
Nonetheless, I remain ripe for comeuppances like the one last night, when my friend reminded me, at length, of just how useless it is to be my purest self—which is also my most annoyingly self-involved self, if he and my husband are to be believed, as I think they might be. (It’s kind of interesting to note that I can’t remember ever being confronted by a woman with such exasperated vitriol, but maybe it’s just that my women friends were as forced as I was to learn patience at an early age.)
My friend is right about me—but maybe what he doesn’t quite know is that when it comes to self-involved blather, I’m just an an all-too-obvious exemplar of a rampant human vice: the longing to be understood. The longing to be heard even when speaking my own esoteric language. I was trying last night to connect with my friend on my own terms, as dully labyrinthine as they are. But the end result was disconnection, and pain on both sides.
You can’t imagine how hard it was last night to keep from saying, “Yeah, but you’re annoying too sometimes.” Or to trot out my timeworn Charles Lamb quote: “’Tis the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and to have her nonsense respected.” But those sorts of responses, experience works overtime to teach me, are counterproductive. They rise merely from pride, from ego, from a stupid need to be “right” all the time. So I let him go on, didn’t argue, let the pain in, cried quietly (a skill I mastered years ago), then told him I was sorry to have been so rude. I even came up with a pretty obvious solution—that I won’t smoke pot with him anymore as we talk, because pot unfailingly plunges me into what my friend calls my “psychedelic” mind, which is, I can’t help but realize, a bountifully creative world where I must live alone.
I don’t mean to be passive-aggressive here. That’s the temptation—to damn my friend’s consciousness by pretending to damn my own. But that’s not what I’m doing–honest. My friend’s consciousness is just fine as it is, and, at bottom, it’s none of my business. I can only work on me: I need to be more graceful. I need to quell my clumsy longing to celebrate my manifold mind out loud. It’s a common little longing, of course—everyone yearns to be known. But it doesn’t work. Ever. I revisited, last night, a loneliness I’ve known all my life. It’s probably the loneliness everybody feels deep down—this nagging awareness not only that no one will ever know me, but that if somehow they did, they’d find me as tedious and incoherent as I assume, deep down, they know themselves to be. We all long for a witness, don’t we? A soulmate, maybe. Sometimes we think we’ve found one, but even a marriage of true minds must admit impediments. I feel myself lucky to be tolerated as patiently as I am by the people forced to know me even as well as they do.
And through all these egoistic ups and downs, I take my best comfort in the knowledge that I love my own company. I’m at my best in one of two modes: compassion for others, or contentment in my own solitude. If there’s a third way life can work, I don’t yet have the grace to find it. I’m as much the petty blowhard as everybody else seems to be. Foolishly I crave to be loved for my weaknesses instead of despite them. I long to be known. Oh, what the hell–I long to be delighted in.
But that never really happens to me in real life. (I wonder if it ever happens to anybody.) And this truth, in short, is what made me a writer. Because even just by typing these words, right now–these bluntly private, boldly anonymous, and only halfway readable explorations into what might really be going on with me–I find myself feeling quite a bit better.
June 8, 2017
I played guitar today. It thrills me to see myself getting better–not great, not even “good” yet, really– but that’s not the point. The point is just to play better. As with my whole little life these days, I’m not trying to “win” anything anymore, and in fact I don’t know what in the world would be worth trying to win. Besides love, I guess–but the way you win love is to give it, which is simple enough once the ego shuts up, and hardly worth worrying about. Everything else—everything, yes? Everything else is a game. And maybe love’s a game too, I don’t know. Love’s just the horse I rode in on, and she’s served me so well that I’m bound to ride her home again.
So with love’s possible exception, everything’s a game. But you’re not there to “win” or even to “lose.” You’re only there to play, and if it’s a fun game, like playing guitar, “losing” is a precursor to, and forever concomitant with “winning”: you might as well think of them as inseparable halves of the same activity. With a game like guitar, I’m working hard to beat my best score, but if–every other minute or so–I didn’t fail at that, I probably wouldn’t find it worth the effort. It’d be like, say, driving—a game I’ve mastered well enough, have no reason to “practice” for its own sake anymore, seeing as I’m not likely to get any “better” at it by staying late after school. Driving, therefore, is for me a simple, useful, but rather ordinary game. Breathing too: I imagine I’m about as good now at breathing as I’ll ever be. Hell, for all I know I’m at the utter peak of my aptitude for breathing, and it’s gonna be all downhill from here. But guitar—oh, there are so many levels I haven’t gotten to yet, and then too, there are a few levels I have finally reached, plus many more I can glimpse just a few yards up the hill. Yes, but even the view from right here is breathtaking.
Amazing how fulfilling it is just to play the games of life without needing them to “mean” anything. In my roles as a game-player, singer, writer, a friend/wife/mother/human, etc., I’m always just trying to beat my best score. Lots of times I fail—that’s how a fun game works—so then I push “reset” and start again. The trick—my wisdom of the day–is to stop making the same old mistakes. You can’t get anywhere new that way, as I see it. No, if you really want to beat your best score, then you have to start making brand-new mistakes, and lots of them.
The other trick is not minding the obvious fact–once you think about it for even a second—that all your wins and losses are small and temporary and have barely even the meaning you give them yourself. It’s not—I used to think it was, but don’t anymore–that in the end we all “lose” (picture Trump’s gold-plated coffin). No, I have a feeling, these days, that there’s no end at all. Or that whether there is or isn’t, I myself will never know, so I might as well relax already.
“The most difficult thing is, always keep your beginner’s mind. There’s no need to have a deep understanding of zen. Even though you read much zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say, ‘I know what zen is,” or “I have attained enlightenment.” This is also the real secret of the arts. Always be a beginner.” –Shunryu Suzuki
“For the unified mind in accord with the Way all self-centered striving ceases. Doubts and irresolutions vanish and life in true faith is possible. With a single stroke we are freed from bondage; nothing clings to us and we hold nothing. All is empty, clear, self-illuminating, with no exertion of the mind’s power.” –Sengcan
(Note: In a world that empowers mere celebrity, self-effacement becomes an act of rebellion.)
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
April 4, 2017
Yesterday a call from the hospital that I need to retake my recent mammogram because there may be something weird happening in the left breast. They’ll do the retest next Monday. It was the soonest time, the woman said, and when I stammered my disappointment, she told me not to worry.
It runs in my family. Or maybe it just walks, I don’t know. My mother got it in her fifties. The doctors removed her left breast—just like mine, I think in sudden solidarity!– and she survived into her nineties before the cancer returned only to discover there was little left to feed it. And my sister Diane, I think. It shouldn’t be such guesswork–knowing if your sister had cancer or not—but that’s the sort of family we are. When we’re sick we’re like dogs. We crawl away, beneath the porch, and don’t want help. Still, I think Diane had breast cancer, but they “caught it in time.”
Something very tedious already about all the clichés attached to this. I wonder if I can get away with skipping them, in favor of fresher feelings. E.g., do I have to say that of course “it could be nothing,” yeah yeah yeah? That we’ll just have to “wait and see”? Or that even if it is cancer, surely they’ve “caught it in time”? What about how the treatments are so much more effective these days, how it’s amazing what doctors can do?
(Glibly:) I think I can handle anything but the clichés. There were so many during the Hannah years, you see. [Hannah was my first daughter. She was autistic.] What do doctors know? Maybe she’ll grow out of it. I see progress!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. All I really know right now is that if this isn’t the life-changing moment, then that moment will simply come later, and maybe it will feel just like this, at first. What I feel: fragility. It’s visceral; I feel fragile in my bones, which I don’t normally even pay attention to. I feel made of thinnest glass. I feel like I should try harder not to bump into things all the time.
In my mind, meanwhile, I’m mainly just curious, for now. I don’t know what will happen, but it might be a fascinating, even a sort of “important” moment for me. But for now I can know nothing. So I put the mammogram-plus-sonogram appointment on the calendar, then live the day I’m in. I’m watching myself closely, but looking outward to do it, at the mirroring world. Colors are vivid, but maybe not more so than usual. Guitar practice goes on as usual, and in fact I found some songs I’d loved and lost, and I credited imker [my Netherlander friend now four years dead, whom I’ve invited to haunt and advise me as necessary] for letting me find them, ‘cause they were delightful. Then later I realized that I ought to let Mom haunt me now, for a while, because breast cancer is more up her alley than imker’s. So all right, I’ll hold tight to her through this.
Whatever this is.
It could be nothing.
April 16, 2017
It was nothing.
But it haunts me—my god, I’m so hauntable—or, really, what haunts me is mortality itself. How crazy that I can’t just surrender to it. How crazy, how ordinary.
Mike Elliott died. Two days ago. He was a classmate at St Mary’s, who was very popular and smart and funny, and who liked me and talked to me between classes. We were never close at all, not even close to being close, but I liked him very much, and now, maybe a month after learning he had colon cancer, he’s gone. It seems crazy to me that this should be true. I learned he was ill the same day I learned I didn’t have breast cancer. Maybe only because it’s that time of year, it feels like a Passover story. Death strolls past my house and into his. He was my age, Henry’s age. He’d felt no symptoms. He’d written me a couple of breezy emails just recently about my dubious role in planning our upcoming class reunion.
I’m sure other people from our class have died in the forty years since we graduated. I just don’t know who they are, and likely didn’t know who they were back then. But this guy—Mike Elliott. I didn’t really know him, of course, and I hadn’t seen him in years. But his death resonates because it’s so ‘untimely,’ and because he was always so fully alive in my mind and in his own, and because it seems he somehow represents my high school years. He was one of those lifeline people back then, along with Mike Radigan, Sue Duffy, Paula Morris, Aneida Jackson—that tiny set of semi-friends whose quirky minds I liked to be around, who made me feel a little more at home in that otherwise foreign place and time. Awful, that time. It really was, you know, for me. I could say it to them now, I guess. I think sometimes about doing that, using the “class memory book” I’m supposed to be compiling(stories from everyone, not just me) to come clean about how awful high school was for me, how ugly and foreign and unlovable I felt.
Thing is, though: I’ve gone through so much more since then. So much that was, for lack of a better word, ‘worse.’ Hannah. Hannah. [My daughter died twelve years ago.] My poignant little palindrome. High school was nothing compared to those days.
And right now as I sit here, I’m supposed to be writing something, or editing my agent letter. In honor of Easter Sunday, you see, I’ve decided to rise from the dead. Turns out that’s not quite as easy as it sounds.
I’ll write in this little journal. I’ll write things that don’t ‘count’. Huh, and note how I react to that notion: an anger rises. I find I hate the idea of things either counting or not counting. I hate the judgmental rigmarole—why do I have to be a famous writer, anyway? When I was six, I wrote because I loved it. I loved to write in the same artless way I loved to sing. I wrote, I sang, I dreamed the livelong day. It didn’t occur to me then to wonder whether what I was doing was important or glamorous or self-defining. I didn’t do it to impress anybody—not really. I didn’t even know writing was supposed to impress people–not beyond a round of applause for the school play, I mean–and I surely didn’t know it was supposed to be a competitive sport, not until the silly little shark pit that was grad school.
(Even now, the notion of a “famous author” still feels silly to me. Oxymoronic.)
Why do people want to be famous? Why do they even want to be ‘read’? History and common sense agree that it rarely makes you happy. Yet I myself have always been asked and have asked myself the contrary question: why don’t I want to be famous? Why don’t I care whether anyone ‘reads’ me? I’m the odd one out in this game. I’m the light hiding under the bushel basket. What people don’t ever seem to consider is that bushel baskets nest like matrioshki dolls, that when you come out from under the first one, you find yourself merely in the next one, just as dark and anonymous, but a trifle bigger and thus less cozy.
We’re all anonymous eventually. I don’t know why we fight it so.
Beside my bed there’s a picture of me at around the age of four. I’m in my snowsuit, my rubber boots, a hood tied by a string beneath my chin. I’m also wearing (my hands are ensconced within) my furry white muff. I loved wearing that muff—do they even make them anymore?—for the sweetest simplest reason: nobody could see what my hands were doing. Not that my hands were doing anything people would care much about. No. Johnson and Johnson—I named my hands after the baby powder—were just holding each other or forming a bridge or dancing or posing in prayer. All the same, their privacy was delicious to them.
I’ve always been that way. I’ve always loved cubbyholes and closets. The hiding place behind the water heater. The cave beneath the grand piano. I loved the park and forest trails most when no one else was there, and I could play out my save-the-world fantasies with purest panache.
I have an ego. A huge one, in fact. Honestly, I think I’m amazing. I just don’t seem to care much whether anyone else knows about it. Can that possibly make sense? That is, am I crazy, or is it everybody else? All my life I’ve lacked what they call ‘ambition.’ But I write the books, don’t I? I’ve written three books in thirty years. Thirty very distracting years, I could add (but won’t). Most people never write even one book, so far as I have noticed. I am who I am. The world (which by now is mostly an old voice in my head) expects more of me. The world wants me to come out from under my bushel basket only to entrench myself in theirs. Am I wrong to find that ridiculous?
Irony: if I let them go—all those voices urging me to want to be read—I’d probably write better, and certainly more often. The joy of it would be so much more full and pure. I don’t know why I can’t just follow my own path, why I always have to doubt what (I think) I know to be true for me. Next to the picture of me in my snowsuit and muff is a picture of Hannah—the iconic one, when she’s two and standing balanced on the folding chair. It’s only at this exact second that I realize how alike we look in our poses, how we share the same sly sidelong glance, as if we know a secret no one else would understand, as if we like it fine that way, as if we’re here but also somewhere slightly else–two smiling, dimpled girls content to be unreadable.
I’m watching her: this part of me who thinks
and writes (occasionally at once). She’s
onto something new, she thinks. And maybe
she is, I don’t know. What I like best
is the joy I feel her feeling as she races
through her trance. I don’t want to startle her
in this sudden clearing, don’t want
to make my presence known, for fear
she’ll lose her train of thought, for fear
she’ll notice me and blush bright red, like
that time her brother Jim walked in on her
pounding out the piano solo from Cat Stevens’s
“I Think I See the Light” onto her bedroom desk.
Don’t mind me, little one. Keep going. Make
mistakes, change fast and slow, follow
your thought the way I follow you. We’ll both,
we’ll all, be here to help you home again,
when time comes round for that.
What I love about dogs is that they let me be myself.
“I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune. As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had I my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest. My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.” This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting. A man must find his occasions in himself, it is true. The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence.” –Henry David Thoreau (from Walden)
“As a student with multiple disabilities, Google looks a little differently to me.” Khalil Lake, Emerald High School, South Carolina. (2016 State and Territory “Doodle 4 Google” winner, grades 10-12)
My latest notion
A website for Hannah,
like they put up for Santa
on Christmas Eve. We’d
track her soul’s holiday as, freed
from form, she strolls the universe.
Watch her atoms intersperse
with those of meteors!
Glimpse her changeless source!
In our old days, of course,
the web was bare. Likewise,
tools for such an enterprise—
that spectral radar—had yet
(have yet) to be invented.
More and more I think of the all-importance of pattern in this world. Finding the pattern, recognizing the pattern, comparing one pattern with another, finding their common sub-patterns, ur-patterns. (Wow, I’ve never used the prefix “ur” before!) Temple Grandin talks of pattern thinkers—got a quote about it somewhere.*
Metaphor and pattern—the same thing, really, just like fable and myth and archetype. It’s all about the comparison/contrast—the only way we can “understand” anything is, first, by contrasting it with what it isn’t like, then comparing it with what it is like. The contrast must automatically come first? I think so. We have an instinct to see everything as “other” until proven otherwise (and even after that). To the extent that we feel “at home” in the world, the world has ceased to be “other” and, whether we recognize it or not, has become an integral expansion of who we already believe ourselves to be—not just where we belong, but who we are, inside our skins but also outside.
Maybe this is why we fret so much about change? All these new “othernesses” to convert into “me-nesses,” “us-nesses,” over and over again. You have to become so nimble, as if you’re crossing a river by leaping from stone to stone. You have to trust life with your life, if only because you have no other choice. (You have to trust that life knows more than you do, because–geez–how could it not?)
I keep coming back to this: the purpose of dualism. It’s a construction–yes?—only that, a pattern we ourselves—with our yes-or-no minds–impose on the universe, to give us a vocabulary, a yardstick to describe things with. This is how we can imagine opposites even to things that don’t exist, or whose existence is beyond our ability to know—things like life vs death, all vs nothing, containment vs limitlessness. (We can imagine heaven, perhaps, to the exact degree we’ve known hell?) And on and on.
*Here’s the Temple Grandin quote:
“I’ve given a great deal of thought to the topic of different ways of thinking. In fact, my pursuit of this topic has led me to propose a new category of thinker in addition to the traditional visual and verbal: pattern thinkers.”
And then there’s this that I just found:
And while I’m at it, why not: