“She was learning, quite late, what many people around her appeared to have known since childhood: that life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievements.” ―Alice Munro
“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
“To those who may be new to the business of maternal regret: you’ll have to give it up, I think, eventually—if only to calm the gentle friends telling you that no, no, you did the best you could, no one could have seen this coming, you were a great mother. It won’t be an easy surrender. In the first place, forget “great.” Try saying just this, right out loud: “I’m a good mother.” Never mind that you stumble, that you want to change the word “good” to “adequate,” or “not too bad,” or “better than my own mom, anyway.” That you itch to slip in at least a “maybe” or a “sometimes.” Dilute the statement as your shame requires—but only in your mind, and no longer aloud. You’re trying to soothe people, after all.
“Nonetheless, you really will let it go, eventually. I don’t mean the guilt, necessarily. No, for all you know, the guilt will always ebb and flow, in accordance with lunar whim. You’ll get used to it. But what you will surrender, eventually, is the notion that your guilt makes you exceptional. You’ll discover, in fact, that it reveals you merely as a member of a beautiful, fallible, self-lacerating tribe. After all, when in your life have you met any woman willing to admit she’s a good mother?”
–excerpted from my memoir, The Myth of Solid Ground
September 11, 2016
The sounds alone would be enough. I’d know just by the beeps and rumbles, helicopter ratatat, the nearly constant sirens, and a train whistle that sounds just as anxious/urgent as the police car, so that you can’t help but think they both must be chasing the same mad killer.
But you’ve got the colors too. You’ve got Puget Sound—how to describe the complex geometry of water? The ripples, wakes, and wavelets, all those intersections, all those patterns, the shifting gray/blue/silver, and oh how the sunlight spotlights every tiny peak of wave—and all of it in constant flux. I could get easily lost here, in this gaze to my immediate left. I’m a “pattern thinker,” if that’s a thing. I see it all—there’s buildings too, and boats and planes—as shapes and angles and delightful juxtapositions. The space needle I could see if I got off this couch (I pause as another seaplane passes), but I can see its reflection anytime in the glass of the corner window. So many helicopters here! Some miles distant, silver beads decorate a latticework overpass—sun glinting off car windows. Motorboats and sailboats, tugboats tugging barges just like in the movies. The V shape of migrating geese. The V shape of a cabin cruiser’s wake. The collision courses averted long before you can even hope for a catastrophe. All the coming and going. I could watch this glittering sea forever, I could hypnotize myself.
I pause to hypnotize myself. It works.
Always some emergency. Soft then loud the sirens. They Doppler in then out. You never hear them stop, they only fade away. They’re always going somewhere else. They all are, everybody out there, the ferries and the sailboats, that sun-dotted line of rush hour cars. They’re always going somewhere else. I saw a motorboat make two figure eights—two figures eight?—and it was all the more beautiful for having nothing at all to do with me. Life dazzles when you watch it from the 24th floor. So many people, and everyone going somewhere, but—what luxury!–nobody headed up here.
Still, there’s no sanctuary. Enough pain all around to fill the oceans. Mary [my friend and traveling companion] and I, on the 24th floor, we know too much, feel too much, even at this altitude. We know they’re all down there, afraid. And even if these walls were made of lead, Mary would still hear the crying, because she keeps her cell phone on.
Today I won’t ask myself all those rude questions I’m always asking myself, like “Just who do you think you are, anyway?” and “Don’t you have work to do?” No. No interviews today, please. Today I’ll mind my own business instead. Eventually I hope to understand that I’ve never actually had any business to mind.
Just this sunlight.
September 12, 2016
I know I’m not obsessed with fame, because I keep forgetting to check to see if that agent’s written back. Surely I’d be checking every hour, the way Mary checks on John [her son, who’s having trouble] when he’s feeling dire. Neither am I obsessed with—let me think of all the things I seldom think about: power, looking pretty, other people’s opinions, money, being loved, my own death, my own self.
I am obsessed—let me aggregate my hauntings—with the pain of the world. Merely that. I carry it with me in my chest—it’s the heavy stone on which my heart is founded, the crag on which it’s built its aerie, the reef on which my ship is wrecked. (Etc.) The pain of the world. Here on the 24th floor I merely hear it ebb and flow outside, as if from far away. Within the apartment, I feel Mary’s suffering more fully than I would ever choose to feel my own. Mary and John, both of them—in my mind they’re dancing, holding tight to each other, in a hurricane. I can only witness. It’s as deep a hurt as I’ve seen in years, and I’m honored to be let into it a little. Too, I feel my own helplessness as a familiar stab—another everyday reminder that I’ll know peace when I finally learn the simple, impossible trick of surrender, and not a micro-moment before.
Then too—how tedious I am!–I ache for Harley, the tiny, arthritic, heart-diseased dog who lives here too. (“A beautiful soul I’m glad to have near me”—that’s how we each would describe the other, I like to think.) No need for words. With Mary, too, no need for words. We nestle today in separate havens, me in the living room, her in the bedroom. We like to be alone together. This is all the outside world I need, I realize—someone to be alone together with—and even that only occasionally.
(I pause to watch a motorboat zig across the sound, its wake at first an S, then a snake, and then gone.)
The usual question: is this anything? If it isn’t, what is? Not fame, not power, not anything on that dull list. This much, by now, is absurdly obvious. But what about the pain of the world? It’s my deepest obsession–my only one, maybe, on my least self-burdened days. The one I can’t give up. I feel it en masse—inhale it like a dampness in the air.
But this generalized ache is old habit by now, and bearable enough. By now it’s only the particular that kills me. My brothers and sisters, my daughters, my husband, my dogs, my friends. A crumpled homeless man I dare to glance at.
If everyone would just be happy already, I sometimes think, then maybe I could finally relax.
Or maybe I keep myself obsessed with other people’s pain in order not to feel my own? Or maybe it’s just a substitute for ambition? What is my own pain, anyway? And what ought I be ambitious about? Sometimes I see how lazy my mind is, how it starts a question or a train of thought, but can’t seem to bother to finish it. I feel, so often, half-asleep. I stare out the window. I breathe in and out. Hours go by this way.
September 14, 2016
I was going to post that in my blog—the part about the pain of the world and all, but when I set it there, and read it again, all I could see was my own silly narcissism. I wonder if I’ll ever get past it. Or am I supposed to embrace that too? How about I give it all up, and just watch for a while? How about I don’t try so hard to know what I’m doing, and just do it, whatever it is?
Sitting here again, watching the boats on Puget Sound. Listening to the sirens, typing not because I have anything to say, but because I like the clickety clack of the keys. It’s a fabulous sound—the tip-tap-tip of success. So I make a resolution: just type to type, just fill the page with words because why not. If I could dance I would dance even when I didn’t move at all. Even standing still in an elevator, I’d be dancing, in my bones. Just as now I am always singing inside, and always writing. It’s like how Mary practices her Mendelssohn concerto inside her mouth, tapping each note on her teeth with her tongue. Such essences can’t be detached and put away, they’re integral to the body’s every molecule. So why do I insist on separating all my parts as if they’re separable? Always looking to put things in their proper bins—my marriage, say, or my writing, or my thoughts one day versus my thoughts the next. Let the contradictions blend together, I say now. I’m as tired of thinking my thoughts as I am of trying to dodge them.
A simple, impossible thing
A memory that breaks my fall: the winter night we climbed
the mountain tower, and Maggie, in her scarf that matched
her lipstick, in her nimblest sneakers, hoisted her blithe
body onto a parapet, so naturally I thought why-not, began
my own uppity fumble–yes, but you agreed with gravity. You
held my shoulders, laughed and said oh no you don’t.
You who cage such raucous grace beneath your ribs that even
its muted, chastened flutter flies me back to the once-upon
world of my babies. Rolling together in the bay-window room,
one saggy end of baggy bed to other, goofy giggly, basking
in the sun’s noblesse oblige approval of our basking
in the sun. You make me ache (but sweetly—how??) for my two
girls. As they did, once (those days cut short by random
knife), you invite me, for a visit, back to Eden.
A sentence from the book they’ll write of us someday:
“From opposite sides of the crowded room, they sent each
other smiles of warm encouragement.” Note the cool
authority, dear one: third-person, omniscient. I too will bear
mere witness then. I’ll delegate our story to the crone
I’ve only glimpsed so far: the all-aware third-
woman solving crosswords near the mirror-hall exit. If only
I could catch her now, could pilfer her quintessence
prematurely… It’s a maze, you (don’t) know: this
fissure lit only by cavewoman’s torch. This life
of the unreliable narrator. (Long-standing English-major
wish: I’m Huckleberry Finn, and wise beyond my knowing.)
You might, moreover, note (or not) how I grow tired—or, no,
how I long to grow tired—of picking at the threads
of vagaries–my half-concocted memories and clues. Not just
the strands that lead toward you, my love (though you’ve
reason to think they all lead there), but others too,
spreading like jellyfish tendrils (let’s say) across
mandalic seas. How deep-down, how finally I want to have
already said all I’m still so dumbly bent on saying.
Then, afterward, to fall into that haven uncannily
coincident with the hollow between your chest
and collarbone, that nest we built from twigs and wine
one summer night, and have never yet flown far from. Forever
I rest there in times of near-asleep and near-awake. Forever
you’re my respite from that double-edged hope: to lose
all need to talk or write, or to trip across the miracle
of telling all, just once, and plainly, and then to let it
let me let it go, absolved at last of everything but love.
“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”
How lucky that I lack the temperament, and perhaps the imagination, ever to ask in hope of reply for the “why” of unknowable things. My faith in randomness, it seems, burns just as bright as other people’s faith in divine order.
“darling girl”—I had them scratch
it on your stone—I’m not sure why.
I rarely called you that in life.
I always called you “pumpkin pie”—
a silly name, bereft of grave
solemnity. I must have been
too timid to be true, back then.
I’ll never be that way again.
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” ― Anne Lamott
The odd things we love, when we love
Henry cares only for films about humans. Except
when he’s high, when he garners delight and soft
consolation from the documentary adventures
of other mammals. Dogs, in particular, warm his
weary cockles. He loves dogs more than any lover
of dogs I’ve known before, and I don’t mind telling you,
I’ve known my share. If I had nothing else to love
him for (but really there are ninety-seven things,
which I intend to list ad nauseam in future poems–
stay tuned!), I’d love him merely for his earnest
love of dogs. And yet, if one day he went mad,
and started loving cats (against which I hold nothing,
due to allergy), I’d click my heels and spin around, and
love his love of cats. Because, you know, that’s how
we got here. That’s how it’s worked, so far. Ailuromania*,
to give but one example, becomes just the thing at hand,
the current metaphor: a pin, a peg, a cross, a stake,
a nail–a strong, convenient hook to hang our love on.
*ailuromania: a passion for cats
I pause to think how lonesome-long I’ve felt
that snowflakes never die but merely melt.
And so with us: this small, liquescent love.
We started–aimless, frozen flecks of fluff…
You know the rest, if either does. I’ve guessed
at reasons for our muteness: coalesced–
a lukewarm puddle, now—we know we know
already what the other knows (and more).
We pre-discern the gist of sighs. Each stone
that shocks the other, ripples as our own.
You wake so early, now. I sleep so late,
abiding time till we evaporate.
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:
A clock that ticks yes no, yes no, yes no,
my lucky heart finds both words meaningless,
so neither can it label, nor assess,
nor translate…nor do anything but go
from tock to tick to tock, unstoppable
as any feeble, human thing can be.
Meanwhile, I scribble, not yet capable
of yielding to ineffability.
We meet next week. First time. Your mountain nest.
A hard or happy time–we can’t know yet.
(Both, I bet.) No worry, though: I know you
either way. And you know me (the one
who’s grinned so long her face could crack).
So when, with you, the tears come, full and free—
what luxury! Let’s cry together, love, clinging
tighter as the fireplace cools, between
the flannel sheets I’ll bring you as my present.
Let’s take a day or days to soothe and witness,
cling and cry… As if we’ve never cried before? No,
hardly that. We’ve cried forever. But as if
we could believe the crazy truth of us: that
with each other we can cry, and feel known,
feel safe, feel loved–at the very same time.
Above: “Street Crossing” (1992) by the American artist George Segal (1924-2000)
Robert Pinsky’s “Genesis According to George Segal”
The Spirit brooded on the water and made
The earth, and molded us out of earth. And then
The Spirit breathed Itself into our nostrils—
And rested. What was the Spirit waiting for?
An image of Its nature, a looking glass?
Glass also made of dust, of sand and fire.
Ordinary, enigmatic, we people waiting
In the terminal. A survivor at a wire fence,
Also waiting. Behind him, a tangle of bodies
Made out of plaster, which plasterers call mud.
The apprentice hurries with a hod of mud.
Particulate sand for glass. Milled flour for bread.
What are we waiting for? The hour glass
That measures all our time in trickling dust
Is also of dust and will return to dust—
So an old poem says. Men in a bread line
Out in the dusty street are silent, waiting
At the apportioning-place of daily bread.
At an old-fashioned radio’s wooden case
A man sits listening in a wooden chair.
A woman at a butcher block waits to cut.
What are we waiting for, in clouds of dust?
Or waiting for the past, particles of being
Settled and moist with life, then brittle again.
Extra cool thing: Robert Pinsky reads this poem aloud here:
If we have ambitions—even if our aim is enlightenment— then there is no meditation, because we are thinking about it, craving it, fantasizing, imagining things. That is not meditation. This is why an important characteristic of shamatha meditation is to let go of any goal and simply sit for the sake of sitting. We breathe in and out, and we just watch that. Nothing else. It doesn’t matter if we get enlightenment or not. It doesn’t matter if our friends get enlightened faster. Who cares? We are just breathing. We just sit straight and watch the breath in and out. Nothing else. We let go of our ambitions. This includes trying to do a perfect shamatha meditation. We should get rid of even that. Just sit.
—Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
“There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.” –Anne Lamott (from her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)
The art of accident, the accident of art. Serendipity. Synchronicity. Coincidence. Luck. A world in which “success” and “failure” coexist. Where what feels like choice, also feels like surrender. Finding patterns in wallpaper, a piece of toast, the relative positions of stars–how different is this from configuring a unified plot from my life’s for-all-I-know random moments? Writing a memoir (writing anything) is an exercise in what I want to call “the management of apophenia.” Apophenia: the innate human tendency to find patterns in randomness. Michael Shermer, who wrote The Believing Brain, calls it “patternicity.” (Note to self: maybe I should too?)
So, “managing apophenia.” As far as I can gather, it’s the same practice as what I’ve heard other people call “harnessing serendipity.” At any rate, as I write this book I watch myself collate, from what may well have been a haphazard life, only those moments that my apophenic mind has singled out as vital to my “story”–and meanwhile viewing a million other moments as extraneous, as ignorable white noise. And how many events have I forgotten entirely, or never truly experienced as they happened, because they didn’t fit my evolving, concocted self-narrative? What details have I left out of focus, in the blurry background of the photo? (And don’t get me started on all the things that might have happened to me but happened not to happen.)
Without knowing it, I’ve spent my life culling memories, leaving only those that befit my apophenic self-vision. It’s what we all do, I imagine. It’s how we remember and distinguish ourselves as selves instead of hapless, nameless waves in an indifferent ocean. This is how we make “sense” of it all. When we view the night sky we have two basic choices: to be dumbstruck by chaotic infinity, or to superimpose a mythology.
The trick of it all, it seems to me, is to recognize and manage our innate search for patterns. The first step must be to comprehend that the patterns are indeed self-created, and not (necessarily) objectively “real.” But reality, of course, is a bit overrated. Sometimes a useful fiction gets you farther than a useless truth. We were born to invent a world out of random flecks of residue. The trick, now, is to waken to the whole of it, to understand that background and foreground, importance and trivia, failure and success, are objectively meaningless, so you might as well train your eyes to locate patterns that might help you best explain your myth, metaphorize your story.
acceptance, autism, black swan, both, compassion, death, empathy, grace, Hannah, happiness, illusion, imbalance, letting go, loss, motherhood, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, play, quotation, randomness, surrender, transience, tweet, union, yin yang, zen
“Love without sacrifice is like theft.” —Nassim Nicholas Taleb