A few years ago I noticed a couple of themes in my photography.
One was laundry lines. In Genova, Jerusalem, Dakar, Bishkek, Kyoto, Grand Canaria…
At first I thought it a bit odd that I was traveling to all these wonderful places, and coming home with photos of people’s laundry hanging out to dry. But then I realised why it speaks to me: this simple fact of life. Universal.
And something my grandmother, in her 1950s mindset, thought was uncivilised. She had an electric clothes dryer, so there was no need for the neighbours to see her cotton underpants.
But what could be a more concrete evidence of civilisation than laundry lines?
For the record, I don’t think Adam and Eve donned clothing out of shame, but because they ate from the tree of knowledge and longed for beauty.
I used to be very proud of my voice. I made a bit of money reading books for audio tapes in high school. For a few years I did the voice-over work for the training programs for the oil industry. But what is beautiful in one language isn’t always beautiful in another.
Only recently I realised – and I can tell you the moment I realised it – that sometime, over the course of the last 23 years, I’d become ashamed of my voice.
American: loud, sharp, harsh – cutting into the soft Norwegian melody. My tight vowels can’t reach the full tone of an ø or an æ.
Last week I attended a yoga class lead by an excellent instructor. But she was an American, and her attempts to pronounce the Norwegian sounds grated on my nerves. Whenever she slipped in a English word, I felt my body relax, but when she mispronounced yet another Norwegian word (as most of us will always do), I felt shame creep back into my solar plexus, where it felt at home. Where it has grown accustom.
It is a painful thing to admit to myself.
In so many ways, I love how moving to Norway has changed me. I’ve watched my poetry reflect those changes in metaphor: desert to moorland, sidewalks to stone hedges. I can even accept, sometimes celebrate, the changes that ageing is bringing. But this is different. This is a change that cripples me. It eats at my confidence, and worse, it makes me defensive.
I have a South American friend who is expressive in her voice and her body language, and I loved that, around her, I didn’t have to try to make myself small and quiet (i.e. Norwegian). But when I shared my fear of being “loud” with her, thinking she might also feel this way, she replied that, yes, indeed, I was loud sometimes.
She patted me on the thigh in consolation.
Recently I watched a video about a woman who developed selective mutism after moving from one country to another. I understand that. Still, after 23 years, adults listen to me with half their attention set on correcting my form, only half on comprehending the content of our conversation. It’s humbling. And at times, humiliating. It explains why I avoid social situations more often than I’d like.
And it has affected the voice I have as a writer.
It is time for me to embrace the ugliness of my displaced voice.
I once went to London to attend a “master class” by a famous writer. It was actually a lecture in a room with 200 or so folding chairs. When the writer was finished talking about her dog and her cottage in the woods, she opened the floor for questions. Someone asked, “What kind of pen do you use?”
The magic pen. The magic paper, computer program, time of day, mantra or tea. Yes, I grew up watching Bewitched, too. Longing for the short cut, the magic wiggle. Waiting for the fairy godmother, or the red shoes that will make me famous before they kill me.
I had an epiphany in that moment, as banal as an acknowledgement of the reality of one’s own mortality… or a slogan: just do it. But like anyone saved on Sunday, drunk on Tuesday, part of me continued to look for the portal to the muses – a one-night stand start to a long term relationship.
Good things take time.
Five years ago I sort of climbed out in front of my life and started to take charge. I realised that if you’re ticking that 46 and over box on the survey, your fairy godmother probably isn’t coming.
I started simplifying my life. Making room. Choosing.
A few years ago, a good friend told me about her own quest to simplify: to own one beautiful hairbrush; one exquisite pen. She inspired me. I’ve been looking for the one pen. The magic pen.
I bought a gorgeous pen when I visited her this summer. Handmade. Looks like the sea. But the ink flows unevenly. I don’t use it when I write every morning. It just sits on the desk looking pretty.
I steal pens. I tend to borrow them and walk off with them. I have a callous on my left second finger from writing. My hand is formed to writing utensils. Yesterday, when I cleaned my nightstand, I found 9 pens in the drawer. Most of them completely unfamiliar. Things I “borrowed” from students or colleagues, surely. Pens migrate from school and back again, hitching between the pages of textbooks and notebooks.
But last week I realised the school is stocking the supply room with different pens. Thin, scrawny pens.
I had no idea I was so accustomed to the cheap blue pens I’ve been using for years. I didn’t realise I’d been using the same pen every morning the past year. Things happen when you don’t notice them. Habits form.
I had to borrow a car to drive out to the office supply store to buy my own box of pens. The cheap, plastic pens that the school no longer supplies.
My one pen.
This sucks. I really wanted my one pen to be exquisite.
I’ve been reading Lonely by Emily White this week. Taking stock and remembering the Christmas I spent alone in my mid-20s, when the phone didn’t even ring. Remembering deciding not to kill myself because no one would know for weeks – and then, there would have been no one to call.
It wasn’t that I had anything to prove to anyone, but rather, I was in the position I was in because I knew I had more to give, and was worth more than I had gotten in the past. I was in a cocoon and had to have faith I’d break out when I was ready.
Two years ago I had to go in for an ultrasound. The blood tests indicated pancreatic cancer, and every google search found the same story: the no-symptoms-but-three-months-to-live story.
I’d left my husband (a lovely man) the previous year. My best friend lives in the US, and my (now) fiancé and I had just begun dating.
I finally told my oldest son about the test. He happened to be visiting from London that month, and he asked if he could go with me for the scan. My first response was no. But then, I realised that it was his place, his *right* to be there for me. We made a 48 hour plan in case the scan showed a tumor. He’d come back to my apartment to be there for me. We’d call his boyfriend to come be there for him. We’d take it from there. I spent the weeks in the meantime accessing whether I should live differently in the time I might have left, whether I had huge regrets. What would I miss? What would I be spared?
After the scan, the three of us went out for a celebratory dinner. The scare made me realise that I am on the right track, if not there yet. Made me realise my oldest son had grown into a wonderful young man with more resources than I had given him credit for.
The thing is, since I was a kid, I’ve thought we are probably here for someone else’s sake. And we don’t know whose. Could be the man on the subway the morning you said hello and smiled in passing.
I have no idea who would miss me. I wrote a chapter in a book some years back, and I have had two letters from people thanking me. Just two. But that is one more than reason enough to have written it.
What I have to keep in mind is that I may not have yet written the chapter that the person I am here for needs to read. Might be my boys. Might be a student. Might be a stranger. But it is arrogant to censor myself out of feelings of inadequacy. (Still not sure I’ve completely convinced myself of this one.)
I don’t have a huge network of connections. I haven’t had a tribe since Jr. High School. But I have made a positive difference in individual people’s lives. Most of them have moved on, so they won’t miss me. But they would have, had I not been there when. I’ll just keep showing up, and hold onto my childhood faith.
I spent a half hour texting with my youngest son last night. He is in Denmark with his girlfriend and they had just finished watching Inside Out, as had I and my fiancé here. Coincidence. Connectedness. My macho-military dude texted that he almost cried when he realised how important sadness was. Today I am thinking loneliness is pretty important, too.
Listening toOn Being, on the way home from work today: Jean Vanier talks about the wisdom of tenderness. He talks about St. Francis of Assisi, who said that his encounter with lepers brought a “new gentleness” to his body, and his spirit. To his body, and his spirit.
If you aren’t familiar with On Being, the question that drives the podcast is, “What does it mean to be human?”
The answer for Vanier is bound up in reality, and for him, that means the body. He mentions the joy and freedom he has found ageing in his body. How his ageing body solicits new, and different responses from the people around him. He’s hugged more often.
Maybe that is something that comes with the wisdom gained by moving through the world, this gentleness of the body and spirit. More hugs.
I am still working out the connection between the body and the spirit. Between the spirit and the phenomenological, day to day reality of the body acting in the world. The tongue articulating, the fingers producing symbols that force other people’s perceptions into existence, right or wrong.
The counselling textbook I’m reading claims that, according to existential theory, our “essence” is the product of our actions. I have problems accepting this. For one thing, an essence must be unchanging. An essence, by definition, determines character. Character determines the choices we make. How can we grow if our choices are (pre)determined by an unchanging, true self? If our choices and actions create our essence, at which point is this essence fully-formed?
It seems to me existentialist would have to drop the idea of essence all together. Didn’t Sartre?
I am probably missing something; I’ve forgotten my Kierkegaard. But I am wondering if it would be a wise use of my time, at this point, to go back and attempt to rehash the old, one-sided arguments I’ve had with dead philosophers.
The fact is, I don’t believe that any of us have an essence, a real “I” that will be discovered, uncovered or freed through an epiphany of any sort. I recognise the person I was ten years ago. Thirty years ago. Two. But I’ve changed, in ways that defy an essence (though, granted, people who’ve known me throughout those years may not perceive what I know are a series of sea changes).
If a mean, little god were to take me, as I am now, to any time period in my life and drop me there, I would experience shame in regard to my actions. It seems simple to me: if I were the product of those actions, if those actions created my essence, I would not be ashamed of them.
Unless the essence of my being is bound with shame in some way.
But I’m beginning to understand that shame is not an essential part of me. Only now, heading toward 50, I’m beginning to look at the person I was and let go of shame, in favour of sorrow. I am learning compassion. And I think that compassion is probably what St. Francis meant when he spoke of gentleness.
There is a dialogue repeated on twitter in various forms:
“How should we treat others?”
“There are no others.”
We may just as reasonably ask the guru how should we treat ourselves. Compassion is all-encompassing.
There is an interesting project called “What’s Underneath“. Women of all ages answer simple questions while undressing. There is nothing provocative about it. Not in the way that word is usually used.
These women are demonstrating compassion towards their humanness. What it means to be human. To be a body. In the world. And, often, one of the questions is “What is the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?”
I used to think the greatest risk I ever took was moving from my home country. Traveling alone. Getting in a car with a stranger. The women in the project have some very interesting answers.
But I think we are all wrong.
I think the greatest risk is bound up with self-compassion, with gentleness, with forgiveness. It’s stripping down to the human essence that transcends any one of us: the mortal body. And walking around in the world without shame.