Knowing the What, Not the Why

A difficult night last night. Three a.m. text messages are never good news. Even when the news is edged with hope: a turn for the better, an “it could be much worse”.

It’s not the knowing that all things are impermanent that is comfort, it’s the acceptance of this. And I am forced to redefine the concept of “comfort” in my mind.

Again I read in a news article that it is foolish to say we live in uncertain times when the future is always, and has always been, uncertain. It’s a matter of how aware we are of that fact.

An alarm pulling us from sleep, even to offer hope, exposes our most vulnerable nerves. These truths that fade in sleep. Or in dreams, are popped into relief as a kind of rehearsal for the inevitable. Waking is a reprieve sometimes. Awake, asleep – both are ambivalent states of being. There is nowhere to escape from ourselves.

Is there comfort?

Soothing is not healing. But doesn’t try to be. What if the largest part of our job is a kind of palliative care? What if all that there is, is the soothing of ruffled feathers? A warm hand on a cheek? An intention to reassure one another: you are not alone.

Breathe, and be here with me. Even over a telephone connection. Like a dream. Listen to the wind against the window. Be here with the wind.

Reaction is not action.

In the theater, an actor’s every, individual action is supposed to be an assertion of the character’s will. Actors strive to inhabit the character’s lack of self-awareness. Acting is the inverse process of living Socrates’s examined life. Don’t act: react.

Art is, by most definitions, artifice. It has the intention of recreating life. But for what purpose? Many diverse cultures have had a tradition of hiring mourners for funerals. Actors, reacting in an act of compassion. We cannot bring back the dead, but we can care for the living. The theatrical is no less real for being theatrical.

And leading an examined life, acting instead of reacting, is no less real for its directorial perspective.

It’s one thing to accept the futility of one’s own will in regard to illness and accidents – the events of the greater world. It is another entirely to accept that there is no one to whom we can appeal for guarantees. No one’s will can stop the world in its tracks. It keeps turning under us, and we are forced to put one foot in front of the other. Because that is what we are here to do.

“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

― Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

Even the most devout of us will caution that not all prayers are answered with yes… And they go on with that knowledge.

In a news report two years ago the journalists described the video that had been online: in her final moments, a young woman who was beheaded by terrorists cried out for her mother. Her mother, who was so far away. And unaware of that moment at that moment.

Somehow the mother, knowing this, goes on. She breathes still, now, beyond the unimaginable. The surreal. What can any of us offer her?

And each other, knowing that this is somehow all of us. All of it.

Of all the scenes in all the films I’ve ever seen, burned into my mind is that moment in Private Ryan where the soldier asks for a time-out. When I react in fear, that scene comes to the forefront of my memory.

If I had Socrates to dinner, I’d tell him that the unexamined life is most definitely worth living. Necessary even. We live for each other. Sometimes we act, sometimes we react. We give attention. We care. This is the nature of us.

This morning I light the candles, and the incense, and I unroll the mat. Through the window, I watch the tree across the street moving in the storm. Inhale through the nose. Exhale through the mouth. Let my shoulder girdle settle. Spine in the center of my body.

I reach upward. Inhale again.

I am tired. I’m confused. Raw. And aware of my fortunate state of being. In this moment.

Who can stay on the middle path when the storm is blowing and the road is covered with ice?

We try.

When It’s Just Too Much

It’s no wonder we reach for supernatural explanations, incantations and spells. Feeling as I do now, so near to breaking, I can’t point to a single overwhelming event, fact, obstacle. Instead, small moments stretch out behind me like a long path of fallen dominoes, and ahead they stand precariously, vulnerable and threatening to fall so quickly one after the other that I won’t be able to keep up.

It is very hard to sit comfortably on the mat, breathe deeply and trust that things will change. My perceptions will change. My perspectives.

This morning the crows’ chatter was grating. It shouldn’t have been. But in the dark, in the drizzle, with my shoulders aching and my mind echoing conversations (that have and haven’t actually taken place), I wanted to shout back.

I’ve always found it easiest to shift my perspective when I shift it in the material world. Stand-up. Run. Leave town for a day. Leave the country for a week. For good. How big is the thing I need perspective on?

I wanted to rush through their gathering
the way the freight train does on most mornings,
so close to the grove you can feel the wind
rerouted by its intrusion.
The trees shake. The crows wait.

I can hear it now, actually – right on cue – passing behind the neighbor’s house, metal against metal in a high-pitched howl. I can feel a cry somewhere
behind my sternum. It presses
upward and is easy to mistake for heartburn,
though not acidic: rounder, fuller
like an over-ripe fruit.

Nothing like metal shavings of the railroad track, actually.
Nothing that can compete with the world’s ills and hurts and

No. This withheld cry will soften into rot
and something new will eventually
emerge. A new fruit – not better – but
a potential. Because
on it goes.

And catharsis? Well, that’s the stuff
of fiction.

On the other hand. Unlike yesterday, this morning I remembered to wash my hair while showering. I found my missing comb under the sideboard in the entrance hall. I remembered to take the pills that keep my blood from clenching into tight little balls of stop.

That’s my gratitude list for a Wednesday. How am I doing? For today: this is good enough.

And take my waking slow

Sunday. And still in my pajamas.

The skies are clear and the air is cold, and at some point I will get up from this desk, get dressed and go to the beach. It is one of those days that – in recollection tomorrow – will be smudged across my mind: leaving just a fraction of an hour of something meaningful -something like

squinting against sharp reflections of the late-afternoon light
while watching a tern searching the foam for something to eat.

And this will be better than most days.

Later tonight E. will take a Covid test before heading offshore for another fortnight. I expect autumn will take hold in his absence. And the space between the points of the timeline of my days will stretch wide: Work. Home. Work. Home. I’ll walk the dog. Keep up the routine. And darkness will creep over the edges of the days until there is precious little light left.

Sometimes precious little is more than all the rest.

I like the smell of there having been candles –
I like it sometimes best.

Because the earth is round and its path is round,
we will pass by this way again, one way or another.

The darkness retreats, too . And we always miss it
as well.

Running East

towards the west coast of England. We’re running castle to castle again come February.
But still a long way to go before that.

The dog is staring at me. We’ve both grown soft on this side of summer and I believe he feels a similar ambivalence facing the prospect of leaving this warm little library and hitting the trail. In the dark. In the cold. It takes a special kind of faith to push against the nature of things.

But I’ll lace up my ugly red shoes, pull on some cheap gloves, and grab his lead.

“Time, time, time is on our side”

Dear Richard,

As I write this, I know you’re in New York. And I’m hoping your back didn’t give you trouble on the flight. And I hope that C. is feeling stronger, and has a forward tug now.

I suppose if I say that there’s nothing worse than the helplessness we feel when our children are in pain, it’s only repeating a truism. But I also believe these experiences are unavoidable and have a purpose. As much a part of living as ageing and death. We have to give them meaning, I suppose. We’re supposed to name things. Give them meaning. Though I’m not convinced we can actually help our children with that.

We seem (as a society) to be stuck in a martyrdom trope: people who have been hurt go on to be saints – better people than everyone else on the merits of their suffering. I think this only makes it all the more difficult to share our pain. We risk being accused of self-righteousness, or worse. Especially now, perhaps, with social media and every post looking like a cry for attention, for the sake of attention.

Last year I read an interesting book about the history of happiness (as people have defined or shaped the concept). It touched on how Christianity, with the promise of happiness after death function(s, -ed) as a tool for oppression. “The meek will inherit the earth” is a promise that coerce (s, -ed) people to accept mistreatment in the present. I think this pressure to look upon evil with compassion is a way to coerce us into forgiving the unforgivable. Our reward being complacency: we can be confident we’ll have a leg up in the final hierarchy.

We’re caught in society’s catch-22 of being unhappy: do share, but don’t share. There is an invisible line you can’t cross, and it’s like a game of chance. A mine field. Will a troll run a spear through my heart if I use this word instead of that one?

There’s also that related trope, that worries me: “evil is the result of pain”. Our rewriting of so many  and contemporary tales that give us the back stories for our “villains” to explain why they are so mean. It seems to me a whole genre has developed these past twenty years or so?

I believe these stories reinforce the idea that evil or cruelty is simply cause and effect, and that people are “damaged goods” when they have been a victim. It casts suspicion on victims. We harken back to the Naturalists, who lead us to eugenics and other solutions to attempt to avoid passing on our pain. (Well, now I’ve crawled into my own bubble of parental pain and am projecting a parallel in your situation where none exists. Sorry about that. But since I’ve landed here…)

What a crap binary to get stuck in.

What is it about our human nature that drives us so desperately to categorise and sort ourselves into strata? Who wins by virtue of conquering – in the current climate, who’s winning by virtue of perceived wealth, and popularity – who wins by virtue of loss and disadvantage?

I guess it’s more complex than a binary, isn’t it? I’m just thinking out loud. Last week I was talking to a friend of mine who is also bipolar. I was saying the most difficult part of the disorder is never actually being allowed to be happy. All joy is suspect. I’ve been wondering if, maybe, that isn’t also just human nature? Everything is suspect if we are living the examined life. Maybe Socrates was wrong.

But back to C., whose pain isn’t caused by “the evil people do”, but of some unique alchemy of chemistry and spirit that varies in each of us? It’s good to see she reaches out to you and M. for support as she does. And that she dares to reach forward to others through her blog. She has your bravery there, and your generosity that is expressed by the willingness to be vulnerable. I am certain you have made a difference there, as helpless as you might feel now.

Maybe as we age we will learn to give in to helplessness? Our bodies being only a small part of it. You know, if you did have a body transplant, I am sure M. is telling the truth here in that she wouldn’t be delighted.

Old things are much more interesting in the light.

I find younger men quite beautiful: as animals, like sinewy leopards. But I view them with the same objectivity as I do (as a heterosexual woman) when looking at a beautiful woman. I’m not sure if it is because I have grown sons, or simply because I love that a body reflects life experience: there are stories in the aches and the sagging flesh. It’s what makes it all more interesting: less ornament, more art?

And if that’s not a truism, it’s certainly a cliché, I know. It also feels slightly hypocritical coming from me, I’m aware of that, too.

In my twenties, I had a lover who was nearing 60. It was different, being with him. He brought his whole self into the bed. It was like having a tiny window into his lifetime. There was a depth to his experience, and consequently to mine.

And it was rich, in a way that had nothing to do with sexual skill. (And certainly not acrobatics.)

Maybe I’m lucky, in that I wouldn’t have back my experience of “youth” for the world. Even if that means I have pain in my big toe, in my knees; bifocals and a tendency to say, “Huh?”.

I’m lucky that because of my youth, I know that the rain that beats on the roof will eventually stop. And that all this political turmoil will pass, one way or another. And one way or another we move on. Regroup. Grow.

Forgive. I guess.

It is all contained, after all: “our little lives don’t count at all”*. Just a tiny sliver of time. That’s kind of comforting, in a way, isn’t it? It means that being nice – loving – is good enough. In my cosmos, we are all rewarded for our effort: no tallying of wins.

I hope things are good in New York now. That you are home and safe soon. That C. is healing, and that M.’s gorgeous baked goods (Instagram) are helping everyone. Homemade food. I just realised that every time I get depressed, I stop cooking.

So, with that revelation, I need to go make the week’s menu. (I am writing again, but not ready to write about writing.)

Much love to you and yours,

*I would love to quote poems, but I’m afraid show tunes always spring to mind. This time and ear worm from Les Mis.

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 here.