When you can’t go far, you go deep. – BR. DAVID STEINDL-RAST

Oh, Di, you wrote: “…you don’t presume to know me. A gift beyond rubies!”

Isn’t that true?

Writing today, when across the ocean from me there are events taking place that I don’t know how to think about – much less talk about. I don’t have a perspective from which to add anything meaningful to what needs to be said – I don’t even know what needs to be said – or done – or witnessed. From the one view, I was and still am entangled in the privilege that has blinded me to other people’s realities. I was a complicit participant in the culture – but haven’t been for 27 years now.

To be clear: I haven’t been a participant of the culture – it does not, however, mean that I am no longer complicit in the problems of that culture. I know that.

So, as I write this, I hope you will keep in mind that I am fully conscious of the narrowness – the “whiteness”  – of what I am going to write about. I’m in no way trying to be reductive about the pain in the United States. Or anywhere else. I’m not claiming to have any perspective on a bigger picture.  I think that our stories are woven into something so large we can’t conceive of the whole.

I’m often at a loss of how to handle the truth of individual insignificance, and still be reverent of the individual.

And that was a weird little disclaimer to give myself permission to brood today, wasn’t it?

I was struck by your words: “you don’t presume to know me. A gift beyond rubies.” I have been thinking about the fact that maybe this is the greatest gift we can give anyone. Strangers, yes: to learn to live comfortably with  (or simply live with the discomfort) of the mystery of “the other”. To let it be. That is quite literally poetry, isn’t it? At least according to Keats. The negative capability necessary in human relationships is the opposite of prejudice.

And I suppose requires us to catch ourselves as we form our thoughts, as we interpret what we hear and see. It makes me laugh to think that my goal should not be to become a “good judge of character”. But rather, to allow myself – not to be child-like at all – but to suspend judgement: to stop, hold, wait. No wonder so many religious paths have a practice of abstaining from one thing or another. I guess, for me, the question is where the strength/faith to withhold judgement will come from.

I think about how it is actually easier to practice this kind of negative capability with strangers than it is with the people we love. We want to pin them down. Even when that means pinning them down as “good”. We feel safer “knowing” them. Secure in knowing who they are – and we are silly enough to think of their unexpected behavior as betrayals.

Isn’t it ridiculous actually that we have this tendency to be surprised by other people? We either say they have changed, or fault ourselves for misjudging them. The former is inevitable, and the latter an absurd mental calculation, in and of itself. Maybe we are at our most judgemental with our children. Boxing them in probably gives us a sense of control over the way their story will play out. Even when the story we write for them is dark, we can at least feel prepared.

I don’t know – am I the only person who goes through life trying to set up narrative safeguards?

I have always thought your returning to New Zealand was courageous. I get this image of room behind a closed door. The door has a long slit of a window. Probably an image of a scene in a move – an asylum cell. The window is so narrow that the people viewing it from the hallway never see the whole person in the room. They see just a strip of hair, shoulder, hip, shoe. And they make their notes for the day.

Did I tell you that once I got ahold of my psychiatrist’s notes and he from an hour session he had written: “Hasn’t brushed her hair today. Had a fight with her boyfriend.”

It would make for a good story if I said that he upped my meds that day, wouldn’t it?

Are the people who thought they knew you “back when”, allowing themselves to meet the person you are? You having come home the same stranger to them, but now trailing long, beautiful stories that smell of simit and tea, basel and salt water – and of things for which I have no names or associations.

I wish I could draw. I would sketch you. Just sketch, though.

My aesthetic preference has always been biased toward the quality of the lines, not the photorealism. Not even the symbolism.

Gestures.

I cannot go home. But before my grandmother died I remember the moments she would occasionally say something over the phone – something simple – she would tell me that she did not really know me. Which made me feel more seen than I had ever felt.

Are you experiencing that? Maybe that is too intimate a question.

Your talks with Jimmy do sound like holy moments unto themselves. I wonder – this awe we have when we are confronted with the familiar/mysterious expanse of sky or the songs that come from the total darkness and the thrill of knowing/not knowing their source. Am I right in thinking you are one of the people who finds this same awe when you sit with other people and open yourself for their stories?

I suppose there is a value in knowing the “right” perspective when taking a portrait. But there is so much more beauty in the candid shots that reveal as much of the photographer’s openness as they do the subject’s.

I am so happy not to know you, Di!

Dear Di

What a beautiful quote.

The nest of fish was crisp under a coarse snow of salt and smelled so simple and good I thought they might save my life.  Just a little.  Just for that moment. – Paula McClain

What a perfect reminder to be present in our bodies, in the world of our sensual perceptions. It’s nice to be reminded that a piece of fish, a bowl of fruit, can save one’s life: in that – perhaps – it is the reclaiming of the only things that truly make-up our lives? Touch. Taste. A sense of balance, perpendicular to the earth, in vrksasana.

They say there are actually as many as 21 senses. Lately, I’ve decided to stay with those.

 

 

For now, at least. If there really is more to our existence, there will be time for  when I’m forced to untether from the 21.

It’s so good to hear from you. This wriggling into a new year has not been easy for many of us. For disparate reasons. Maybe it does have to do with our expectations? I feel that for months, I have woken with a sense of dread, and a fear that sits in my muscles, stitching them together with cold, wire threads. I’ve been wearing a corset of sorts, unable to breathe. The corset is not literal, but the breathing problems are.

I read somewhere that protest was becoming the new brunch. We tie ourselves up with fashionable constraints sometimes, don’t we? I look at Melania Trump’s heels and think they are our cultural equivalent to (albeit non-invasive) foot-binding. I see the sea of pink pussy hats in a photo, and am both encouraged and reminded of my conflicted identity as a victim. I read a black woman’s account of her son’s brief life in the USA; and I am shamed, silenced and confused.

There is a balance somewhere between apathy and the absurd. I’m still looking for it.

I’m taking a break from social media, and I’ve removed all the news apps from my phone, save the New York Times and NRK. I get up at 5 and do yoga and meditation before I check the news. I figure, if the world is ending, I will have squeezed another peaceful half-hour of life before it does. I’m not saying ignorance is bliss, but why forfeit all that is good?

I’ve checked the Times this morning. The world didn’t end. It’s the same amount of personal apocolypses that has always been scattered over the globe on any given day. So I sit here, with the rosemary oil burning slowly over a tea candle, writing. And I’m grateful for this little room. I could swap the rest of the rest of the house for just these few square meters behind this veleteen curtain.

I think of you and your safe spaces, public spaces, your unique blend of voyeurism and participation. And I take care that my admiration doesn’t become envy.

I guess there are things we choose, and then things we can only choose to frame in particular ways. You talk about self-care. I think that is difficult. Finding the balance between kindness and firmness with myself. Or perhaps realizing those are not opposing attitudes at all?

I love the image of you “floating” home, and up your marble staircase after an evening of music and laughter. I am glad the triangle of your life is finding form. The social aspects, the creative, the personal.

Last week a student told me his parents remind him often that if a person is not successful by the age of 24, they more than likely won’t be. It broke my heart. What a narrow view of successful. What a narrow passage through life. Narrow and linear. I find the older I get the more reticent I am.

Do you allow yourself to believe that your life sucessful, Di?

I have moments of clarity. I have moments where I seem to touch that space of contentment, where life is meaningful of its own sake. Of itself.

My life, too.

Then the moment passes and I worry about being productive or useful again.

Speaking of which. It’s time to head downstairs to dress for work. To catch the train and face the teenagers who view me with half-veiled pity… and fear. Yes, follow your dreams, I would tell them if they would listen: follow the dreams, but be conscious of what is real, and what is really worthy of a life.

This morning, noticing the chamomile tea on my deks and the sunrise creaping through the gaps in the blinds – I am successful.

E. is out of town. I will bake fish for dinner this evening. And think of you.

Much love,
Ren


This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order her