Sometimes, it takes us years to process something terrible that happened to us, that changed our lives, changed who we were. Are. Those years are spent trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, trying to metabolize pain before it metabolizes us.
And when it involves someone you trusted, trying to understand why and how feels like the most urgent and important thing in the world. It feels possible, but elusive.
If I stopped trying to understand, what would happen? It doesn’t mean I haven’t learned anything. It doesn’t mean that the journey has been a waste of time. To the contrary, the endeavoring was part of my healing process.
But it is also the part that has no where left to go.
I imagine it this way: I have been moving forward carrying a large ball of twine that has been unwinding with each step. For years, it was always there, no matter how many steps I took in any direction. But now I find myself holding the end of it, and behind me, it winds all the way back to what happened, and it charts all the ways I tried to see it from all the angles. It’s not a straight line and it is wrapped around memories and snagged here and there so that as I hold it now, it’s taut. There’s no where left to go. To take the next step forward, I have to let go. Maybe I’ve been standing still longer than I realize, holding that last bit of twine, waiting for it all to make sense. It won’t. It can’t. Maybe I know, too, all the ways it connects me to more than just pain. It connects me to things that that were possible that aren’t anymore. Maybe that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out all along. How possibility, at least one thread of it, is cut short.
For years I held on tight to what hurt. I thought that if I could understand it, it would hurt less, or, it would offer some protection against future suffering. But I don’t think it works that way.
It wasn’t as if I wasn’t living and loving during this time. Hearts do complicated work while performing their function. It isn’t as if my endeavor to understand what happened insisted on being the only story, the whole story. But it was a through line. Life is a complicated interweaving of past and present and pain and love and you just keep going even as you keep working. Even if clumsy, we walk and chew gum. We love, we pursue dreams, we fall into old grief masquerading as new grief, we dig, we think, we learn, we move, we stand still and catch our breath.
Sometimes too, it seems silly almost, that I would have spent so many hours and thoughts and heartbeats and breaths and tears trying to get to a place where I could say, oh, yes, I see. That makes sense, especially when I see others going through different, bigger, harder traumas. But, I can’t change that this is how things felt to me, and this is how long it has taken me to get here. Sometimes things just are how they are. They take the time they need to and that has everything to do with us but nothing to do with choice.
So, what does it mean to open my hand and heart and take the next step without what has become a comfort, my tie to past hurt, my journey to understand it, that umbilical cord feeding me stories of how it used to be and never will be? What is like to move from but, it wasn’t supposed to be this way, to whatever is next? I don’t know yet. I don’t know what is beyond the reach of my tether. I’m still catching my breath. I’m still loosening my grip on that last bit of twine. But I think I’m close. Something in me, some instinct I can finally hear, is saying it’s time.
Peace to you all, wherever you are on whatever part of the journey you find yourself.
So much of life depends on how you look at things.
I don’t mean seeing things from a different angle in order to guide yourself toward a more positive perspective. I mean new experiences sometimes hand you a metaphor and give you a way to contemplate something more deeply or fruitfully than you have before.
Recently, my daughter and I took a trial wheel-throwing pottery class. It was something we’d both wanted to try for a long time. I was nervous about investing time and money into a semester-long class without first having some idea about how I would feel about working with this medium, so the two-hour workshop format appealed to me.
On the drive over to the studio, I had a strange thought. I was feeling anxious and as I dug around in that feeling I realized part of it was because I did not want to disappoint the instructor, some person I’d never met before. Why on earth would I care about that? Maybe I didn’t want them to think that my inability to follow directions, or create “properly” meant that they were not doing their job well. I wanted to be a good student so they could feel like a good teacher. It was also part of my people-pleasing mentality. [The reasons people do this are varied and complex. Sometimes it is because we’ve lived with emotionally volatile people and we learn to not make waves. Sometimes it is because we need others to think well of ourselves since we have a hard time doing that on our own. This is often a result of us having internalized messages—religious, cultural, societal messages—in such a way that we feel it is necessary to prove that we are, in fact, good people.]
Still, I tried to shelve these ancient worries. I wanted to focus on having fun with my daughter and learning something new. I wanted to prove to myself that I could.
As it happened, my daughter and I were both feeling a little anxious, because it’s normal to feel that way when you’re trying out something you’ve never done before. But once we walked into the studio, met the owners and their dog, and toured the space, I began to feel more relaxed. Shelves of drying cups and bowls and vases, pale stoneware waiting to be glazed. Gorgeous curved and sumptuous shapes. Rows and rows of completed, glazed work, waiting for students to collect them. Oh, the glazes. I love glazes. I wish I had the vocabulary to describe them, understood their chemical composition. Reddish browns, honeyed golds, pale bronzy greens. It all washed over me. I felt both calm and exhilarated. I love that hard-to-come-by feeling.
I couldn’t wait to feel the clay beneath my fingers, to begin to see how it responded to the corresponding forces of my touch and the movement of the wheel. I’d watched enough of a British pottery competition program to imagine what it might be like but now I’d be getting my own hands dirty and trying it out.
One of the owners, Mike, sat down at the wheel and talked us through various processes and techniques. And then suddenly we were doing it. Mike helped when we weren’t sure if our clay was centered, or if a bowl was widening to the point of collapse. He was a good guide.
I wasn’t shockingly good at it for a beginner, though I really wanted to be! I may not have uncovered a hidden talent, but I also did not uncover the disaster I’d been fearing. This wasn’t gym class, and I wasn’t unbelievably horrible at it, as I was with most sports. Have you ever been so bad at something that people are embarrassed for you? Not fun. But here, in the studio, I did have fun, and so did my daughter.
There was some kind of perfect little relief in the newness of it all. A bliss in getting to believe in something else, a different kind of space, a different kind of making. I think my daughter and I both experienced that and it felt important to be able to share that with her.
In the days since the class, one of the things I’ve reflected on is the notion of conversation. Working with the clay, my hands had to be in conversation with one another. They didn’t simply work “together.” They worked in harmony and in response to one another. It is different than say, playing a musical instrument, where your hands are working together, but each is performing a separate task. In building a bowl on the wheel, my hands had to talk to each other, listen to each other, in order to create something together. It was impossible not to see this as a beautiful metaphor for what I hope to one day find in a relationship. If you are not working together, focused on the relationship you’re creating, it will not hold together, things will spin out of control. You must want the same thing. You might end up making something different than what you intended at the beginning, but you’re in on it together. And unless there is a cooperative, positive effort, it won’t be anything at all.
Because my brain works the way it does, I seized upon this metaphor and tried applying it retroactively to past relationships that did not turn into what I’d hoped they would. Maybe this was the way I could make sense of how things happened the way they did. The pottery metaphor provided an effective lens with which to view things and helped me to remind myself of why those things didn’t work out.
I’ll be honest. Sometimes I need a new way to look at an old thing I’ve been turning around endlessly in my head. The ending of relationships is hard. Grief is real, full, and deep, no matter how much you believe that the ending was necessary. I often find myself reciting the stories and their endings back to myself, so I remember, so I don’t repeat past mistakes. So that, if I’m lucky enough to get a next time, I get to keep it. Grief takes up a lot of space in a heart. In a way, we remain in conversation with our grief, long after the loss that caused it.
Another thing about conversation is that in the past I’ve mistaken emotional or intellectual connection for emotional intimacy. It’s all about conversation, but they are not the same things. We have to look closely and see if what we are offering to our partner is what we are being offered in return. There were times that I was not actually having the conversation that I thought I was. Things take time to reveal themselves. People do. We all try to be the best versions of ourselves when we want something to work out. But we can’t keep that up indefinitely. And one person’s idea of something “working out” can be very different from another’s and in the absence of emotional intimacy it might take a while to figure that out. We may think we are building something with a partner, but unless we are in true conversation with one another, one hand might be trying to create a saucer while the other is trying to make a vase.
Another lesson here for me is about a new kind of open heartedness. It took a bit of pushing myself to decide to take this class. I must remember to do that sometimes, to nudge myself into action, into new ways of looking at things. I admire people who can jump into new things without the anxiety that sometimes holds me back. At the same time, I love that these experiences for me feel special, wonderous, even, given that it wasn’t easy for me to approach them.
We all come at the world and all it has to offer differently, but I don’t believe that there are methods that are superior to others. We go at our own pace and are rewarded in the ways that feel meaningful to us. And we learn the lessons we need to when we are ready for them.
After you make something at the wheel, it goes through many other steps. It air dries, then is trimmed, then dried in the kiln, and then glazed, and then fired once more. Or something like that. My daughter and I didn’t get to do those other steps—that is what the full class is for—but we did get to pick out glazes. I’m eagerly awaiting the call from the studio saying that our pieces are ready. Pottery, it seems, like everything else in my life, is trying to teach me patience.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to sign up for the full class, but the next session will begin in January, and meets for three hours on Monday nights. That’s a big commitment! But I think I’m intrigued enough to take it on.
Wishing you true conversation and a little bit of genuine bliss.
Sometimes we will try many ways of looking before we can see.
Sometimes when we want something very badly, we will look at it from every angle, multiple times, even creating angles that are not there. Hope can do that – create prisms out of thin air. Shiny things that distract our minds and hearts from difficult truths. But at some point, the blinding brightness of the light is muted by a cloud – of anger, of fear, of sadness – and we are able to see things with a new clarity, and then, to move in the direction we need to go.
I told my sister recently that I’ve been gardening as if my life depended on it, and I wondered if it really did, in a way. Not the fact of my life itself, but the way I want it to unfold. I told her that when there is so much to do, you can hardly even tell I’ve done anything. A lot of the hard work we do can be like that. We wonder and worry about how our efforts will be perceived, though we know how we’ve endeavored.
When we say we want something “very badly” we mean this: we want it very much. Sometimes we are told that what we want is a bad thing to want. It is silly, it is pointless, it is too much, it is ill-defined, you won’t get it, the world doesn’t work that way, who do you think you are, to want such a thing? No one gets what they want. As if wanting the right thing for ourselves and our future is somehow the wrong thing to do. I suppose sometimes it is. I suppose, in some philosophies, the teaching is to eliminate wants, the way some people eliminate carbs. They are bad for us. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe we are all wired differently. Sometimes we simply must respect the differences.
We offer trellises to vines, thinking of future growth. There is planting and wanting and planning everywhere. There is growth in new directions. We are many things at once: the vine, the trellis, and the gardener who plants the vine and places the trellis. We are who we’ve been and who we want to be, as much as we are who we are in this moment. Multitudes, always.
My gardening has involved creating beds and pathways out of an overgrown, weedy, neglected area behind my garage. It was long abandoned when I arrived in this place, about a year ago, and for many reasons, I was not able to make it a top priority. Now, with more time available and some fraught and frenetic energy on hand, I got to it. Digging, planting, creating. It isn’t finished. Like everything good, it is a work-in-progress, something to always tend.
We need the work and the work needs us.
I planted a little baby of an Eastern white pine. I’d been longing to plant a pine tree for a while. I researched them. Realized many of the specimens I thought were pine trees were really spruces. Things often reveal themselves to be something other than what you thought they were.
I looked for trees months ago, but it was too early and none of the gardening or landscape stores had them yet. Then I looked too late, I thought, because I still was not finding what I was looking for. But yesterday, I found the white pine. I greeted this creature, as if knowing it already. There you are, hiding here in the back at this store I never come to. So, there’s hope I guess, buried in gardening metaphors, about timing and finding, maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to see clearly sometimes. Remember?
My current state of mind is work- and growth-focused. Writing and gardening. Dig, prune. Wait for rain. Be patient. Blossom? Maybe. Sometimes it works out that way.
Sometimes the true shape of our dreams is not yet known.
Recently, I was asked to take a self-assessment for a professional development workshop. The questions were different than other personality assessments I’ve taken in the past, but the results were similar. Familiar descriptors floated to the surface: introspective, intuitive, creative, nurturing, etc. And I thought, I’ve known all this since before I had words to name these characteristics.
Some things have never been a mystery, not to me, about me.
The mystery lies elsewhere, as our known selves try to find ways to acclimate to the different environments in which they find themselves – to different homes, neighborhoods, jobs, relationships. All those always characteristics adapt into various ways of being, and we come to believe that those behaviors, those ways of expressing ourselves, are the same thing as self. But BEing and ways of being are distinct. At times, they are a close mirror of each other, and it feels as if everything is falling into its place. Then, we find a way to be in our current existence in a manner that is in near-perfect harmony with the self we have always known.
Some mornings, when it is quite early and I want to listen to the quiet in my brain, I warm up what is left of yesterday’s coffee and sit in the half-light of the living room. When there isn’t much coffee left, I add a generous pour of oat milk. It reminds me of the coffee that my mother permitted me to have as child. More milk than coffee, with a little sugar, it is not grownup coffee, and it lets my thoughts be childlike in their wanderings, without a need for order or progress. I remember that younger me having a distinct awareness of a blurriness of self, as if I knew that my consciousness resided in this body and in this existence, but could tell itself apart. I remember a particular moment, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, looking out the window at the trees blurring past in the sunlight, telling myself I am me, I am me. I remember discomfort, as if it took some effort to hold within me an understanding of both unity and fracture. The depth of my love for this little thinker, my desire to protect her and that inner world, has never dissipated. When I say that my writing stems from a desire for connection, I do not mean only with others. I mean with myself, including that little girl contemplating matters for which she had no name.
Sometimes, when I’m mulling a tough problem and stumbling up against the self questions that cartwheel in front of me these days, I think of what the people who have known me the longest would say, and then I think of what the people who have only known me since my divorce would say. They are often very different things, which is unsurprising, but which does not help when I’m seeking the through-line. I sense instinctively that there is a truth that I can uncover, as if there is a way in which everything aligns.
We are told to be true to ourselves, but do we know what that means?
When I look at my childhood self I wonder if she is an accurate gauge by which to consider my own current authenticity. Does that put too much pressure on the past, on fallible memory, on a self that, because she is comprised of memories, is more myth than truth?
Our lives are fragmented. We move in between worlds, perpetually navigating different situations and environments and recalibrating ourselves as needed. It is easy to feel as though our understanding of self gets lost along the way. We too quickly become who we are seen as, rather than who we’ve always been.
Recently I have looked at my old watercolor paintings with a fresh eye. I’ve hung up some of my first attempts at apples, completed during a class at a community college when my daughter was a baby, and have judged them far less harshly than I once did. I’m not saying they are good. I’m saying that when I look at them, I feel a connection to the experience of being an anonymous and aspiring artist in a classroom full of unknown people. I barely remember the professor, and I certainly don’t remember any classmates. But I recall the feeling of being there and trying. And I see all my curiosity and earnestness in those paintings.
And curiosity and earnestness feel like links to the little girl in the back of the car contemplating her existence.
I think of how many times those words, curiosity and earnestness, have made an appearance in previous blogs. Those concepts catch with me, like the little burrs that stick to your socks when you hike through a field. I think, this is how I want to be. These qualities underpin one of the refrains that chorused through our household when my children were growing up: try your best. Among other things, it is about being open to learning, and being willing to work hard.
Perhaps this comes with a little too much pressure, pressure that I put that on myself. Often, I’m frustrated when the results do not seem to match the effort. I wonder – was that my best? Did I work hard enough? Did I not learn well? I am trying to be more process-oriented, and less results-oriented, but it is not an easy shift, and perhaps, it is not a necessary one. Perhaps working toward a specific result – a better apple, a published story – is a good and motivating thing for me, and maybe all I need to work on is not being overly discouraged by imperfect watercolor fruit and rejected fiction.
However, I wonder if all goals or dreams are well-served by this approach. Maybe some things won’t look the way we always wanted them to, and maybe that’s a wonderful thing. Pursuing a goal that we are only looking at from one angle may result in us giving up on the goal instead of swapping one perspective for another. Some dreams are more complex than we realize and have many facets; maybe when we focus on a singular component, we can’t truly understand the value of the whole.
There was a book I used to read to my children: The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown. Here’s an example of the way this book works:
“The important thing about an apple is that it is round. It is red. You bite it, and it is white inside, and the juice splashes in your face, and it tastes like an apple, and it falls off a tree. But the important thing about an apple is that it is round.”
Sometimes we need to clarify for ourselves what the important part about a particular goal or dream truly is. Possibly, and without knowing it, we do harm to our ability to achieve the dream because instead of focusing on the important part we are expending energy on something we mistakenly believe is the important part. Sometimes, we don’t want precisely what we think we want. When we try to know our own hearts, we have to look well beneath the surface. Our true dreams are often obscured, layered over by years of doubt, history, pain – our own, and that of other people, who, though well-meaning, might weigh in on how our own dreams should look and feel to us. It is no wonder we are often plagued by thoughts of, and fears about, loss and lost-ness. Others might try and tell us what should be important to us, and that can nudge us off course. Do you think the most important thing about an apple is that it is round? I do not. But who am I to say what should be important to someone else?
There is no getting around the fact that the process of making our own hearts known to us takes time, and careful examination. This is true for any dream, wish, or goal that we have for ourselves, whether it is concerned with our personal relationships, or our pursuit of our art, or our work, or something else entirely. I do not know the way to reveal that which I cannot yet see, though I’m certain that I must keep exploring my heart and all its sedimentary layers. This discovery process will involve more ambiguity than I am comfortable with, and that is a reality I reckon with daily.
As an example of all this, I can give you a peek into one of my dreams. My writing dream has always involved publication. Yet, I am beginning to explore the idea that instead of this being the most important facet of this dream, it is but one part of a writing life, which is perhaps more what I’m truly after. In truth, I’m not exactly sure what that means, nor am I certain of the path I need to take to get there. For now, I’m focusing more on what I need to say, and how best to say it. In the coming months, I will be immersing myself in a couple of workshop experiences with other writers, led by artists and mentors I trust. The time feels right for this approach, though the work will be challenging.
This is but one of the dreams I’m searching out the true shape of. Everyone has some. We carry pockets full of stones gathered from lakebeds and we don’t know why. We wish for the unknown to reveal itself. We throw pennies into fountains, wishing, wishing.
On the night of the lunar eclipse, I dreamed I was mending an unknown world with pink thread.
I put a lot of effort into trying to make sense of things that don’t. In my writing, it feels like the practice of untangling knots that can’t be untied, though each story takes a fresh try at undoing. My brain attacks most present worries in the same way.
When I sit still, I sometimes feel both restless and exhausted. This state is a product of many things – pandemic year, new and old anxieties, writing frustrations, aging realities, leaving and moving and settling in.
In my writing, I begin to wonder about voice – what manner of expressing myself is unique to me, my fingerprint of creative expression. And voice, as in, mine, in this world. Lately I have revisited half-begun stories and can’t take them anywhere. I think of a top spinning at the end of its movement, the wobbly tilt and hobble where I find my creative practice these days. Tops get spun again; I don’t worry that I’m done, but wonder where to go from here, and how.
In a way, it feels as though this year of largely staying in place has been one of incubation. During this time, I focused on trying to make my new house feel like mine. I thought a lot about home. I also began to reckon more consciously and deliberately with the notion of aging. I periodically take photos of myself that I show to no one to document the progress of the incoming greys, and to acclimatize myself to the changing terrain of my face. We have kept ourselves as hidden as possible from the hidden virus, and I have grown tired of hiding myself from myself. But I often don’t recognize me.
I heard somewhere recently that resilience is never losing your enthusiasm in the face of failure. This made me feel angry and a bit deflated, because I want to think of myself as resilient, but I always feel enthusiasm flag when faced with failure. I would counter that resiliency is never losing hope in the face of failure. You can feel defeated, but at the same time you keep fighting for what’s important to you. Enthusiasm feels like a bit too much pressure sometimes. Then again, it is possible that I am not actually resilient. But I am good at hope.
As I’ve noted before in this space, Clarice Lipsector wrote “It is also possible that even then the theme of my existence was irrational hope.” We all have themes, not only as artists but as humans, patterns we observe in our lives, values we attempt to adhere to, wishes we twirl around our hearts. Maybe none of us could extricate ourselves from the themes of our existence if we tried. Some things are as they are. I will find love stories everywhere. I will write them. I will be hopeful about everything and everyone I love. I wonder if all hope is irrational.
Everything I have ever written has turned into a love story. Love, loss, seeking, finding – these are the structural frameworks of most everything I compose. I wonder sometimes, when I feel defeated, and the rejections land solemnly in my in-box, if all I can build are dollhouses, while better writers are busy building cities, universes. But then I think that maybe the world needs dollhouses too. We all need different entry points into the art we interact with. Maybe someone is just waiting for the right-sized door. Maybe it’s all that Alice in Wonderland game of feeling too big or too small to get to where we want to go. But eventually, we find a way to connect.
The themes we don’t stray from are, in a way, one path toward maintaining our connection with ourselves. I have a novel manuscript that has undergone more permutations than I care to number. I have left it unsubmitted for a long time and had nearly decided to abandon all hope (and enthusiasm). But, I have dedicated myself to one more overhaul, and I’m now working with a trusted writer who is helping me take a fresh look at it. I feel hopeful once again, but daunted. Possibly I am not now, nor ever was, up to the task of doing what so many novelists do so well, which is, to do everything well – plot, character, pace, language, theme, subtext, and so on. Everything must be precisely fine-tuned for the work to sing. Currently there is a lack of harmony, there is a lot of out-of-tune warbling, and a fair amount of throat clearing. Sometimes I think the melody’s there though.
I listen for melody too in the world outside my door, but I’m finding it clunky to emerge from this pandemic isolation, as we receive our vaccinations and make plans once again. I see other vaccinated folk pursuing “normalcy” as if they hear a tune and feel compelled to follow it. I can almost hear it. And there are people I’m so looking forward to spending non-masked time with. I can’t wait to spend more than a few odd hours with my daughter, and to see her whole wonderful face the whole time. Yet, in general, I feel both excited and enormously anxious about jumping back into the world at large. Maybe I’m feeling as though I’m still incubating. As with many things, we grow when we learn to be empathetic with regard to the timetables of the people around us.
When I think of empathy and growth, I think of the way growth often doesn’t always look like growth – it looks like incubation, it looks like cocooned pupae. And when I think of empathy, I remember that I often forget to have it for myself.
This weekend I did a little hiking. It felt good to be in the woods. My son took a picture of me at my request and I’ve looked at it many times since, trying to see what I wanted to see there. A recognizable person. She seemed familiar, me and not-me at the same time, but the setting seemed right and that helped. I don’t know why it feels so difficult so often to know and be at peace with myself. Maybe this year too much happened and too much didn’t happen, and it changed me more than I am consciously aware. Maybe the image in the photo is a reflection of reality and it is my ability to see it truly that has been altered by time and experience. Perhaps how we see changes more than what we see, and how we hear melodies differently from one another explains so many things. This is all the more reason for us to cultivate empathy toward one another and to build our reserves of resiliency and irrational hope, as we attempt to both listen and sing in this world.
A recent rain brought down a bald-faced hornets’ nest that had hung high on a branch of my neighbor’s silver maple. The nest was active last summer but its papery cavities, in the cold months, were excavated by birds for sustenance, or so my son has informed me. The silver maple branch of my neighbor’s tree juts across my back yard, so that the nest hung squarely above my yard, until last week. We discovered the nest at dusk, and in the fading light, it reminded me so much of a giant human heart, misshapen after the fall. When I took the dogs out in the middle of the night, they stood near its eerie mass, not indicating a threat so much as something I should take notice of. This, they seemed to say. In the morning, we studied the nest’s construction, the intricate cavities; we marveled at the engineering. I thought how wonderful it was that the hornets’ well-made home allowed them the safety and security necessary to live out a full life cycle, even if we, their human neighbors, occasionally needed to dodge them in the summer.
When I was little, we had a cluster of forsythia shrubs in the yard. Their long, arching branches wove together at the top, forming a little airy atrium. My two older sisters and I would spread a blanket on the dirt floor of this chamber, and spend many a spring afternoon escaping, planning and plotting, adventuring, and resting there. Sometimes now I would like to ask them: do you remember staring up at the crisscrossing branches above us, looking at all the yellow stars blooming, and feeling safe? And have you ever felt so safe in your lives since? Our baby brother was napping away the spring afternoon, our mother worked in the house, our father was gone to his job, his life away from the house mostly a mystery to us, except when he let us come to the grocery story on Sundays when it was closed, and we’d help him by turning all the cans so their bright labels neatly faced the aisles. It was years before our other sister was born, though sometimes I imagine she was there too, somehow. I think this is the safest I’ve ever felt, long before the sting of any loss, before we tumbled into our adult selves. Nestled in our flowering nest, there was no understanding of anything that couldn’t easily be made better.
Sometimes we are lucky, and we can recognize happiness when it comes along, feel the solid pressure of it aching in our ribs, patiently, until we notice it and name it. It is in these moments of recognition, where, feeling both solid and buoyed, I find myself most vulnerable. Where the mere whisper of a threat to what I’ve so carefully constructed feels like a storm of wind and rain, ready to send it all crashing to the earth. Everyone feels vulnerable to loss. I think when you have very specific memories and a set of circumstances that surround a past, significant loss, part of you becomes hyper aware of what you can lose, and how it will feel. Part of you becomes an ever-vigilant swarm of hornets, swirling in a confused haze around the nest, looking for threats. People talk about “angry” hornets, or wasps, or bees. They are not angry – they are instinctively protecting their collective heart, the nest, or hive. Yet it is easy to wonder, if our perceived-threat response is hornet swarm, how can we ever feel soothed, and what will it take to feel capable of being happy without feeling overwhelmed by the corresponding fear of its loss? I think back to the forsythia days, and how that was the magical quality. There was no fear of loss; we didn’t know what it was. Happiness and love existed like air and sunshine.
I have spent years trying to teach myself to live in the moment, to not what if my life away, to not swoop and swarm when I fear the world could give way beneath me. In no way have I mastered this. But in some ways, I’m managing to navigate, sometimes. In some ways, it is only the swarm of words that can calm the other swarm. I talk my way through, I write my way through, and I talk some more. I wish it were easier. And I’m ever thankful for being loved in returned, and listened to, with empathy. I’ve also considered that there is another way to think of the swarm that tries to protect me from losing what I love. Rather than thinking of the swarm as the dark shape of past fear protecting me against future loss, it can be viewed as a signifier, one that underscores that this love I have is something worth protecting. Like the dogs in the yard hovering over the nest, and the forsythia blossoms hovering over three little sisters, the swarm says simply, This.
A friend and I recently were writing to one another about why we write. That conversation yielded for me an understanding that why is a question awkwardly affixed to the relationship I have with writing, which is more akin to the relationship I have with my skin than anything else. In a broad sense, it is something I have, something I need, something that protects me.
On a practical level, yes, writing is also something I do. Sometimes it is an act of artistic creation and sometimes it is an involuntary function that happens automatically and silently, the way my brain tells my lungs to breathe. Things are unfolding all the time in my mind and I wish I could somehow capture more of it. Sometimes writing is my only hope for effectively communicating my heart to the world, (or to the more individual and larger universe of me and you).
Sometimes writing is a job and sometimes it is a wish, but it is always skin.
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, weeks, days, minutes, always, trying to pinpoint such facets of my identity throughout the changing circumstances of my life. This intense scrutiny was kickstarted by my divorce, though I had long been focused on issues of identity in my writing, always trying to figure out if we become more of who we are as we age, or less.
As I enter my first spring in this new place, I sat down recently with my coffee and felt myself settling in, to here, to now, to me. And I thought, maybe I’ve been asking the wrong questions about identity and self-awareness. Maybe the most direct route to understanding who am now is this: what makes me feel at home within my own skin, no matter where I am?
The first thing I thought of was the coffee I was drinking, as I sat on my new-ish IKEA sofa in this still-new-to-me home. I then pictured myself at my boyfriend’s place, still new-ish to him. It is a curious thing: you find yourself in a life where none of the places in which you find yourself are ones in which you have much history. So where is home, then, except housed within us, and created anew, sitting next to this person who seems able to keep making space for you, and you for him. You put out the welcome mats for one another, sweeping them off or airing them out if there is ever difficult weather.
It is a marvelous but strange thing to be aware of your own history-making. To contemplate the ways in which home and history are related, but not in the ways you once thought. I recommend keeping an eye out for it, for the art you are making of self, seemingly out of thin air, or from webby gossamer strands, every day.
As I walked around the yard with the dogs one morning, it smelled like summer. Recent rain on thirsty dirt, a damp promise of heat panting in the air. I thought of drinking camping coffee, sitting with the kids in the morning, outside the tent, feeling cozy. The memories collaged in my brain, out of order, but collective. This too is history and home and self. It remains, clean and bright and clear, even in the aftermath of events that left much of the past feeling sooty and smudged.
It may seem strange to utilize list-making and note-taking as paths to self-discovery. Such a process lacks the romance of the quintessential road trip motif. However, sometimes things don’t work that way. It is less a fun, crazy journey and more paying attention and hard work. Mostly, I crave simplicity. I want to create obvious paths to certain self-knowledge, so that I can quickly run toward what I know and like about myself. So I can gallop toward safety, when I’m feeling anxious, or filled with self-doubt, or self-criticism. It is so easy for the negative to overtake us sometimes. We need to have our escape routes planned. Sometimes you have to sit down with yourself and go through the checklist, the way in elementary school we had to ask our parents what the escape plan was if the house were on fire. You have to tell yourself, when dark thoughts begin to suck you in, that there are the paths back to yourself, that you know the way. It is too easy to get lost in the thick haze and smoke of anxiety, depression, fear, or grief.
I feel as though I’m often vacillating between extremes – between being overly candid or completely withdrawn, between whole-hearted enthusiasm and active detachment. I wonder how people find middle ground. I speculate that there is a place thought of as “normal” and most of us hover around the edges, not seeing each other, and the imaginary normal place is teeming with a healthy population of individuals that can communicate with one another with ease and confidence. But in reality, most of us fumble, we hurt and get hurt, we regroup, we take deep breaths and fall silent. We clear our throats, and our eyes, try to speak and see, and be seen once more. Sometimes we manage to get it right, to find a safe, strong hand in the haze, and so we practice the art of holding on to one another.
Sometimes a word grabs me and won’t let go. Yesterday morning, walking the dogs in the strange warmth of February sun, it was “fallow.” Fallow as in, plowed and unsown earth; as in, quietly replenishing after having been depleted.
The recent warmish weather and the thawing of a frozen winter’s worth of snow has got me thinking of what it means to be fallow and waiting. Maybe these thoughts took root at least in part because of the Rilke quote I came across recently: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.” (Ranier Maria Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet.”)
Like anything that I consider to be a strength, patience, that deep cosmic kind I think Rilke is talking about, plays hide and seek with me. I must peek in corners to catch a glimpse of it, or chase it down, often unsuccessfully, when I need it. I think I do possess it, somewhere, but it is elusive. And there is plenty about myself that feels unsolved, plenty that resists my current capacity to understand. How like fallowness it is, this kind of patience, and how hopeful to imagine there is a latent richness that will produce a surprising yield at some unknown time.
This way of thinking stands in sharp contrast to the restlessness I often feel, to my urgency to know what is going to happen next, in the coming weeks, and years. Often, this anxiety about the future is rooted in past experiences; for me this is true. Many, maybe most, people endure events at some point in their lives that change every version of the future they had envisioned for themselves, and have an awareness as it is happening that this is what is occurring, this loss playing out in full vibrant color all around you. You see the future erasing before your eyes, you see yourself vanishing too, in a way, in all the ways. New things, good things, begin to coalesce and emerge, though. They begin to form themselves into solid figures here and now, and you start to feel healthy and strong in ways you didn’t imagine possible before. Even so, there remains a fog up ahead in which you fear you will lose your footing, or everything.
I would like to think this long, cold, pandemic winter, this period of vigilant caution, of staying put, of worry and fatigue, is all part of a prolonged fallowness, a period of forced patience. Maybe like the soil under a bed of leaves lying beneath melting snow and ice, we are in a process of becoming enriched, we are readying ourselves for understanding what we cannot yet comprehend, truths about selfness and strength. Maybe after the period of fallowness is over, we will understand something we currently do not about the way expectations can vanish, but selves do not.
Still, it is difficult to wait. It is difficult to pursue goals – whether they be artistic, personal, professional, relationship-related – and not see the results we hope for. We wonder, why will this not look the way I thought it would? We wonder if we’re doing it wrong, or if we are simply looking at it from the wrong perspective. Maybe everything is falling into place exactly the way it should, and we have not yet reached the point where we can make sense of it. Maybe it is all still fallow-ing and when we are ready, we will grow – into our selves, and our lives, into our own big hearts and dreams, into the worlds we’ve been constructing for ourselves almost without knowing it. We are tiny lives in iris bulbs building our selves in the rich hidden worlds in the soil all winter long.
So many things do not look the way we thought we wanted them to. I think of my veneration of soil here and wonder how I can be so anxious to get my hands in dirt and plant things, when at the same time, the melted snow and the pounding dog feet have made a mud pit of my little plot of suburban soil. It is all the same substance but when acted upon by external forces, it changes form. We are not so different. Our little selves in iris bulbs transform to stem and leaves with the application of sunlight over a certain number of hours each day. We are all acted upon by time and by the weather of our lives. Even so, we are comprised of the same elements we always were.
Perhaps it is the same with everything we do not yet understand about ourselves. Truths waiting to be seen from another angle. Us, waiting to be acted upon by this force or that until we are ready. But for now, we must be patient, learn to love the mud and the questions, wait for the sun and rich soil, wait for the answers, knowing it is all the same stuff anyway. Maybe in this way we get closer to knowing and loving what we are made of, here, now.
Sometimes we need to remind ourselves what failing is not.
I have forgotten how to meditate. I once utilized meditation techniques as tools for cultivating calmness, and then, when I needed peace the most, could not summon the energy necessary to pursuit it. There was only the exhaustion of surviving and rebuilding.
Life feels fairly well rebuilt now, but even so, there are snags. Everyone gets tripped up sometimes. Do you ever feel that life was once so chaotic and overwhelming, it now only takes a few small stressors piling up to make you feel exactly the same way? I sometimes think: Why does it feel like everything looms and threatens? These are little things, everything is okay. But sometimes things feel bigger than they are, because they once were bigger and more dangerous, and every cell in our bodies remembers the past.
At my calmest and most generous, I see myself as capable of peace and growth, capable of mastering the pain of the past, along with the anxiety such pain has been reborn as in my current life.
I remember this from meditation: you do not try to avoid the stray thoughts that creep in; rather, you acknowledge them and let them float by, and away. I imagine mastering pain and anxiety in this way. I see you but you will not infiltrate my peace. What I don’t remember is what it is I am supposed to actually focus on. My breathing? A blank page? An image?
Perhaps this is the difficulty I have now: I am more focused on what to do with all that intrudes than I am on what remains. What are we, in the absence of the intrusions of past grief and present worry about future troubles? And, what self is not composed at least in part by these molecules?
Yesterday, I once again tried to bake bread. I approached this activity the way I approach the rest of my baking: Here is a recipe. I have most of these ingredients. I could swap that. All I need are general proportions and an understanding of process. This works for most things I attempt: cookies, cakes, pies. It has not, thus far, worked very well, if at all, for bread. I have discovered that this process is also how I approach any creative endeavor: writing, watercolor painting, crocheting. I learn enough to get started and then I wing it. There have been times I attempted greater discipline. I took a watercolor class. I read crocheting patterns and occasionally actually follow a recipe for a cake. My successful pursuit of an MFA in creative writing was a defiant attempt against my own nature to be disciplined about craft. I wish I could do it again. To force myself with a financial and temporal commitment to learn how to be a better writer.
All things considered, though, I like the way I bake, even if things don’t always turn out. It feels like art to me, more of a creative exploration than the experience of following instructions. I realize you need both for things to be successful, some instruction and some creativity. I worry that in too many areas of life, I rely too heavily on figuring it out as I go rather than following instructions or sticking to a plan.
I liked school, so I’m not sure where this resistance to instruction comes from. I do remember, as a child, possessing a strong dislike for anything I would not be competent at from the beginning. (This, along with the lack of any natural ability, accounts for my failure at any and all sports-related activities.)
About the bread. It didn’t turn out very well. I was asking a lot of my ingredients, did not have enough of the right kind of flours. I used a recipe for guidance but tried to make it work with what I had. It is easy to think of it as a failure, as far as bread goes. Most people would.
There used to be a corporate buzz phrase going around the office for a while: fail fast. In grad school, we used to say, fail better. I understand the ideas, mostly, but really what the phrases point to is that we all struggle to find a way to make failure mean something, as if by talking about failure in the right way we can make success somehow more achievable.
I wish we could call “failure” something else. It probably does not matter what we call our process. It is never going to feel spectacular to have something not work out as we hoped. It is always going to feel as though we wasted some resource, our time, our money, our energy. In the end, we all know that the only thing we can do is give it another go. This is true for every aspect of our lives, for our careers and relationships and interests and artistic endeavors.
That being said, the bread isn’t a disaster. It has a pleasant flavor, and the texture is not as bad as I originally thought, now that it has cooled. It does not reflect mastery, but it was intentional effort.
That being said, what else do we think of as failure that is really far from it, that is the opposite, that is un-failing?
We cannot clutch our past failures so tightly to our hearts that we allow them to become prophesies of the future.
We cannot allow ourselves to hold on this way because soon, or eventually, we will get to the why even bother part of this thinking. It is entirely likely we will want to give up before we achieve success, if we regard every effort as failure instead of another step in the journey.
What I keep coming back to in so many blog posts, is this: like many people, I am in the process of figuring out what I am all about now. For me, the now markers are fifty-years old, half a dozen years post-divorce. It is clear that I’d like to feel less anxious, more peaceful. To do that, I’ll need to be tuned in to the weird lessons my life reveals every day, in little things, like baking imperfect bread. To look at the idea of “failure” as a only a word, and one that my life is rigorously attempting to empty of meaning and power. And, I like this process, this figuring out self in this deliberate way, where I’m making a conscious effort to be awake to what I’m doing and why.
I wish you happy baking, endeavoring, figuring, and un-failing.
Sometimes I don’t want to calm down, because I’m not sure what to do once I get there. I wonder if I know how to do more than visit. I’m so used to allowing my anxiety as much space as it needs that it feels more like home somehow, to be worried. To be in the void, the one at the center of calm, to be without the fluster and fear, means dealing with a situation instead of reacting to it. In a way, there is safety in not-calm. It shields us from work we haven’t learned how to do, or that we were forgot we were competent at. Or, from work that needs doing, but sometimes we are so very tired of doing it.
Recently, I was startled by the sudden and violent death of a mourning dove who’d been grazing on the snowy ground at the base of the bird feeder in the back yard. We first noticed the large hawk, hunched over something. It dawned on us then that he must have killed something. After he flew off, carrying the body, we traipsed through the snow and viewed what remained. A scatter of grey and cream colored feathers surrounded a circle of blood-stained snow. Surmising it must have been one of the mourning doves we had noticed earlier, we cleaned up what we could. As I used a plastic grocery bag to gather up feathers and bloody snow in shaky fistfuls, I thought, abstractly, “the dogs,” not able to articulate my worry over them examining the scene. It simply seemed bad to allow them to investigate and possibly consume anything left of the bird. And then I was startled by a sudden grief for the mourning dove I’d invited to the feeder.
When I was attending my graduate school residencies, I heard a lot of talk about “liminal spaces.” The term liminal wasn’t part of my usual vernacular. This notion of in-between-ness felt writerly. It was a lofty concept, an emotionally self-aware and intellectual way of looking at things, and I liked it. Wanted to inhabit a me whose boundaries encompassed the use of such words. I remember thinking about how much living existed in the space between our words. I found myself fully invested in exploring this concept, probably because I was in such an in-between place myself, in between versions of myself, headed away from a married me, and becoming a divorced me, but not really knowing what it was supposed to look like, who I wanted her to be. The liminal eventually became a meaningless concept for me because I felt as though I would be perpetually unable to leave behind one existence and inhabit the next. I felt trapped in an existential game of Twister, limbs tangled and reaching back and forward and everywhere at the same time, grasping urgently for a sense of self. I thought, rather than arriving at the next iteration of myself, I would succumb to becoming a not-me. As if I was nothing more than this tangle of selves, rather than someone who insisted on her own certain form. A scatter of feathers and blood. No longer bird, but still evidence of bird.
In a way, calm itself is liminal. It is an in-between space, the place that exists between anxiety and the next part, work. The work of undoing or repairing or rebuilding whatever sent you falling in the first place. I think of the place in between bird and not-bird and realize it is a very different thing than transitioning from one state of mind to the next, from anxiety to calm to work. It is final. Full stop. Though moving oneself from a state of anxiety to a state of calm can inspire dread and more fear, we always know it is a journey we have to make. But, it takes time. Sometimes we need help, sometimes we need solitude to regroup. Yet it is always characterized, eventually, by movement, not by stopping.
I think about the little movements, like a flutter of breath once we realize we’ve been holding it, that invite us toward calm. The half-formed thought that suggests the difference between the instincts we trust and the hazy, malformed notions that are more remembered grief than the deeper knowledge that points us to what we need, when we need it. Admittedly, it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes. It is even harder to tell the difference when our state is not calm.
I wonder sometimes if it is healthy to spend so much energy considering such abstract things as anxiety and fear and states of mind and states of being. But I also don’t know how to exist, how to be me, without also considering my whole self and my place within the larger world. I think too that such considerations play a vital role in allowing us to grow together and harmoniously with those close to us.
We must keep sharing our real selves with our people, and encouraging them to do the same.
How lucky we are when they allow us to do so without out judgement. I consider myself to be an open, heart-on-your sleeve person. But at the same time, I carry around a certain level of shame and embarrassment about the things I don’t love about myself, like my easily triggered anxiety, or certain weather-related phobias, or the panic my periodic insomnia induces. I admit, I hoped to downplay these qualities to my boyfriend, worried about how he would perceive them. But who we are simply and without fail reveals itself. And, I’ve happily discovered that I am with a person who seems able to accept everything about me, even when my quirks seem unexpected or incomprehensible. We have been together two years now, and it is beautiful to be able to offer one another this grace, this space to be who we truly are with one another.
I’m wishing you all calm today, and am supporting you in being who you are, who you are becoming. If you have a chance, take a moment to hug or thank the people who are happy to let you do that.