My latest axiom: When in doubt, do the moral thing.
January 17, 2018
It seems to me lately: My experiences become useful to me only once they become fables. My history can’t help me unless I can find in it a pattern (however apophenic it need be) that I can then convert to mantra, moral, metaphor, answer, lesson, creed. I need to find my way, in short, from the specific to the general: I touched a candle flame just once, and instantly I knew what any Fire could do. If only every event revealed its truth so fast and plainly.
I continue along this path of trying to learn what path’s most useful–by which I mean, “what leads toward grace”–by eliminating, one by one, every dreary dead end. I won’t list them here, each uselessness that blocks each way, but will bundle them all into a crate called “desire” and hurl the crate into the sea, where to my consternation it will continue to bounce and bob in the rough water. (Obviously, I should have weighted it down better.) Now that box of longings will follow my ship as if tethered to it, no matter how fiercely I gnaw at the rope. But this way I know where it is, at least, and can keep a careful eye on it.
Something I scribbled on a post-it note some days ago: “Everything that happens to us is serendipitous. It just takes practice, and maybe a bit of confabulation, to discover and harness it.” So there’s that.
From another day, another scribble: “You know you’re high when you try to light your pipe with a nail clipper…and it works.”
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.
Pep Talks and Promises:
(an alphabetized conversation between Hall’s cough drop wrappers and Dove chocolate wrappers)
Be unstoppable. Be fearless.
Buckle down and push forth. Believe in love at first sight, just in case!
Conquer today. Break the mold, be extraordinary!
Don’t try harder. Do harder! Close your eyes and relax.
Don’t waste a precious minute. Decorate your life.
Dust off and get up. Do all things with love.
Elicit a few “wows” today. Even small celebrations deserve a dance.
Fire up those engines! Feel the sun on your face.
Flex your “can do” muscle. Forget the rules and play by your heart.
Get back in the game. Get a good night’s sleep.
Get back in there, champ! Indulge your sense of amusement.
Go for it. It’s definitely a bubble bath day.
Inspire envy. It’s OK to not do it all.
It’s yours for the taking. Laugh, laugh, and laugh some more.
Let’s hear your battle cry. Listen to your heart and dance.
March forward! Live in the present, forgive your past.
Nothing you can’t handle. Live your dreams.
Power through! Lose yourself in a moment.
Push on! Love like there is no tomorrow.
Put a little strut in it. Send your best friend flowers.
Put your game face on. Simply be, rather than do, for a moment.
Seize the day. Sing along with the elevator music.
Take charge and mean it. Someone is thinking of you right now.
Tough is your middle name. Take time out for a catnap.
Turn “can do” into “can did!” Think of every day as a Sunday.
You can do it and you know it. Think without boundaries.
You’ve survived tougher. You make everything lovely.
“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.
And so I start blogging again. Who knows why, exactly? All I know for sure is that I don’t really care if anybody actually reads this thing or not. This is the part of the trip I’m on now–the part where I realize that I just happen to like weaving potholders (my usual metaphor for making “art”), and that’s the end of it. I don’t really see the need to set up a stand on the sidewalk and advertise those potholders to passing motorists. No, only the weaving matters, and in fact once I’ve “finished” the things, I hardly even look at them again. I’m restless to move on. I seem finally to have learned this about myself.
Every other Sunday morning, I co-host a two-hour radio show on a tiny local station, and for days beforehand I find myself working crazily hard on the themes and playlist, because the planning, for me, is the fun part. Learning new songs, resurrecting old ones, dipping into the histories of genres and the lives of pioneers. Then Butch (my friend and co-host) and I do the show, play songs and talk about them, and all that’s fun and fine–especially when it’s my turn to work the sliders and buttons! But it feels more like aftermath than goal. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that on any given Sunday, anywhere from zero to maybe a dozen people are listening to us at all. It’s soothing and freeing, that anonymity. It’s a lot like the feeling right here and now, in fact, as I type this. There are so many, many blogs out there that only a tiny, mostly accidental group of people will ever glance at mine.
So I’m free. Forgive me for saying so, but it doesn’t seem to matter to me whether the reader (that’s “you,” by the way) exists at all. It’s actually more useful, in fact, to imagine myself alone. After all, I’ve served a lifetime as my own favorite and most loyal witness. By now, I can be “you” just as easily as you can. I ‘m finally learning that, for me, the best joys lie in practice, not performance.
From today’s diary:
I’m getting better at seeing who I am, and being a witness to myself instead of a judge. To throw away the judge, you know, you first have to have an impeccable confidence that you don’t need him anymore, that his absence won’t inspire some personal spiritual crime spree. I think I can safely say that much, for now. And anyway I’ll never really lose that judge, and probably I’m built so that I can’t. So I’ll be witness to this too; I’ll listen to my daily self-chastisements, and wonder how the part of me who still believes they’re true gets through the day.
“From Pandora’s Box, where all the ills of humanity swarmed, the Greeks drew out hope after all the others, as the most dreadful of all. I know no more stirring symbol; for, contrary to the general belief, hope equals resignation. And to live is not to resign oneself.” –Albert Camus
(painting by Addie Hirschten)
In these times
I’m fifty-eight. You’d think I’d know by now
these lessons I keep having to relearn.
The latest, loudest fact: the earth sags low
beneath the weight of idiots who mourn
an age that never was. And am I one
of them? Again, my trademark insipidity:
that life is good—and people too–deep down.
I’m Anne Frank in the annex, always pre-
annihilated, trapped in reckless faith–
“in spite of everything”–that men are good.
(Her “everything,” like mine, included death
but not the grin beneath the hangman’s hood.)
I fear my hope more than I fear my dread.
I think like children think, forever caught
in fairy tale, in prayers my mother said,
in “progress,” in “my country,” in the thought
that savagery’s a glitch, a rare malfunction.
What will it take, I wonder, to dispel
my dull naivety? My own extinction?
Or is delusion requisite to hell?
This is for Mary–my gentle friend and sister to my soul.
Like a lot of us these days, you long to understand why our nation is so polarized now, at a time when, as you quite rightly say, “both ‘sides’ need to listen to each other!” I know you mean it when you ask me to “comment” on your worries. Still, I hesitate.
For one thing, I used up all my weekend brainpower making up the song list for yesterday’s radio show with Henry. I chose songs that depict what I might as well call “the male predicament”: songs about what it might mean to be a “strong man” in our society, and they included as many points of view as I could fit into a two-hour show–from Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” to Will Smith’s “Just the Two of Us” (a sweet rap about fatherhood). It was a lot of fun, and it also, come to think of it, served as yet another experiment in compassion, for both Henry and me. Thus, all weekend (and, what the hell, all my life) I’ve been groping with the very question implicit in your facebook post: how do we empathize with people who see the world from angles completely foreign (and all too often repugnant) to our own?
For the show, Henry and I each chose a song from our childhoods that exemplified for us, in those old days, the “ideal” man or woman. It turns out that, when I was a kid, my ideal man was epitomized by Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” Henry’s childhood dream-date, meanwhile, lies captive within the lyrics of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” We played both those songs and then talked about our picks. My childhood’s ideal was a huge, physically omnipotent man–more “icon” than “human”–who remained a stranger to everyone who met him, who never spoke or expressed an emotion, whom other men worshiped but also feared, and who ended up sacrificing his unknowable life in order to save the lives of his crew. Henry’s ideal, meanwhile, was a woman of endless love and loyalty who never questioned her own dull premise: that the opposite sex is no more than a walking catalog of selfish and incomprehensible behavior that must always, always be found acceptable.
No wonder we grew up so screwy. Both songs are great, I think, and certainly both embrace such virtues as loyalty, strength, self-sacrifice, even love. Otherwise, though, look at the picture. Henry–I think he’ll concede this point–is not Big Bad John, nor would I ever want him to be. After all, thank heaven Big John died young, because, wow, just imagine how boring he’d be to grow old with. Meanwhile, I became a “stand by your man” sort of woman only once I fully realized that I’d finally found a man worth standing by–a man who, not coincidentally, stands by me too.
Henry and I have walked a long tough road to get to this place of (relative) equilibrium. And I mention it, I guess, because it’s the same sort of road we all have to walk, every day, all our lives. In our 30-year marriage (which, for years, we’ve dubbed “The Endless Conversation”), Henry and I have never allowed ourselves (much less each other) a place to plant our feet and say, “This is as far as I go.” No, like it or not, we just keep on moving–evolving, regressing, evolving again… In each of us, you see, there’s still that little kid self-haunted by gender rules that don’t really fit anybody, much less the peculiar likes of us. We’re each still self-taunted by absurd but bone-deep archetypes we were taught to want or to become, but which simply don’t make sense anymore, if they ever made sense at all. It’s a tightrope path–this trek toward mutual sanity–but we keep stumbling along it, if only because we’ve left ourselves, and in doing so have left each other, with no other choice.
Anyway, my point (and I do have one!) is that America is like a marriage. We have to keep talking and listening, empathizing with the other’s pain while never letting go of our own best values, and never ever feeling too afraid to challenge anything that seems to us intrinsically wrong and/or absurd. It’s almost certainly true that, as your post suggests, “both sides” of America (though there are really many more than just two sides, of course) need, metaphorically speaking, to meet with a marriage counselor and talk this whole thing out like reasonable adults. As to whether it’s simply too late for that, or whether it’s never ever too late–I honestly don’t know. All I do know is that our national therapist has her work cut out for her, because America’s disagreements this time are so huge and so personal that the gap between us seems unbridgeable.
Here’s a strange and more or less unprecedented fact of my lifetime: The rise of DJT (I still can’t say his name–that’s how deep this goes for me) seems actually to have made half the country physically ill. Everywhere I listen or read, I hear from people who feel like they’ve been “kicked in the teeth,” who live with a “knot” in their throat, or a “permanent migraine,” or a fear so primal it keeps them from remembering what hope, much less patriotism, used to feel like. As for me, the election’s impact was just as visceral. It plunged me (almost literally) back into a moment when I was six years old, playing in the yard, and Paul K., a kid from down the block, came over to where I stood (I was singing “Que Sera Sera” and braiding dandelions through my hair), and punched me–really hard–in the stomach. (His irrefutable explanation: “I always wanted to see what it felt like to punch somebody in the stomach.”)
This isn’t normal. That is, I don’t normally feel punched in the stomach when my candidate loses. Even eight years of George W. Bush (who was, to my mind, a dangerous idiot) never made me feel the way I feel now. And the fact that (at least) half the country feels similarly–that we’re suddenly bonded by a shared sense of deeply personal violation–has given me a mirror worth looking into as deeply as I can.
As I write to you, my mind keeps returning to a thought I’ve heard a lot lately–something along the lines of “If you’re not worried these days, you’re simply not paying attention.” And that thought leads me to memories of other American moments that deserved more attention than I could afford to pay at the times they happened. Basically, I was so busy fixing the holes Hannah made by ramming her head into walls, that I barely had time to notice holes in our economy, holes in the ozone layer, holes in our democracy itself. But for better and worse I’m less busy these days, so I can afford to spread my compassion a bit further than my own battered living room. It may be, in fact, that I actually have space in my heart now for all of America–not only for my family and the other tribes I belong to, and not only for that much larger group of Americans–people of color, Muslims, Latinos, Jews, the disabled, the poor, the LGBT community, other women (in short, the usual suspects) who will be hurt far more deeply than I will by this deeply anti-American moment.
But my heart makes room, too (for it’s been stretched out a lot over the years), for the people who’ve been shoved by economic and societal changes into a despair so deep and self-contemptuous that they can’t help but long for scapegoats (see the above list) and saviors (see who they’ve chosen; see who and what the man they’ve chosen is choosing). I’m talking here about an underclass of people so seldom acknowledged, so often ridiculed, so little valued that this election seemed to them, as I’ve come to read and understand, their last and only “chance to be heard” before they drown.
For such people, the American dream has turned nightmare, and I think I know a tiny bit about how that might feel. It’s true, they’ve made a terrible mistake–in brief: they’ve elected someone who will almost certainly make their hard lives even worse–but I’ve been where they are, and done what they’ve done. In times of my own despair, I’ve longed for both scapegoats (who, in my case, took the form of benighted doctors, quack therapists, a country that refuses to support its neediest citizens), and saviors (e.g., that cohort of fraudulent or well-intentioned “experts” who assured me they could “cure” or at the very least “help” my daughter).
I can interpret the voice of that underclass, I think, even when it emerges as a primal howl. I can feel the terror on “both sides” as we confront a future that’s left both feeling, as the catchword says, “disenfranchised.” We both, we all, feel so deeply betrayed by our country these days–that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? And now, or anyway soon, we need to work together–somehow–to actually build the America so eloquently and emptily promised to us by our founders, the “ideal” America we all pledged to believe in when we were kids.
In all honesty, the only group of voters I still can’t understand are the ones who voted for Trump and then, having quickly locked their car doors from the inside, drove safely home to gated communities, comfortable homes, successful careers, and a whole lot of money they’d just as soon, thank you very much, not pay taxes on. These are the only members of “the other side” I still need to hear from, in fact–but they’ve been keeping their thoughts to themselves, at least when I’m in the room. (Occasionally they break their silence to shout, “I’m not a racist!” but that’s as far as the conversation’s gone, so far.) Such smart but tiny-hearted people, it turns out, are also part of the family I hold in my heart, and have been holding, all along. Which is maybe why they scare me most of all.
So, anyway, that’s my comment, I guess.
Much, much love,
The furnace roar enthralls me, and the silence
that comes before–and follows–also soothes.
By turns, by force, they beg my acquiescence
to all that’s merely “being,” merely “truth.”
But the wailing mob—how ought I feel? The din
of eight billion curses and sighs. The shriek
of the shrinking world, the whisper-whine
of conquered species, conquered earth. They speak
in hurricanes that moan, in floods that spew,
in droughts that sneer at our inanity.
Yet we can’t translate, though they force us to.
(Our purest faith: Divine Cacophony.)
They’re growling to themselves alone, we think—
or speaking, yes, but saying something else—
completely else, all forms of else! (We’ll sink
while never knowing that we’ve drowned ourselves.)
It’s not our fault. We’re deaf, or worse. We’re dead
to any but our tribe’s vernacular
(which even God calls gibberish). I said,
“The furnace din enthralls me.” I don’t care
to know its source and cost, it seems. I close
my eyes to trace what paths my dreams may take,
as Silence, like a patient prince who knows
his sovereign destiny, remains awake.
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.
Two kids in the bath again,
me just a smaller version of you.
If you cried, I’d sing
like a miniature mother, Moonshadow
and Bye, Bye, Blackbird. No, I didn’t sing
Bye, Bye, Blackbird then. Oh well, all memory is a lie.
You used to run from wall to wall of the house,
but did I really run after you?
I’m older than you now
but I still feel like a version of you.
That’s an invention too, I can’t say what you meant
in your silence. But if I could go back to that bath
and our feet could touch, and you splashed
– I know you would splash –
I would sing and sing until I lost all words.
“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
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.