Read The Body, A Tree yesterday. It was like having a conversation with another grown-up. A shameless matter-of-fact of the body and its history – its histories. Recognition and leaps of identification. “Not exactly, but”: I get it. The humor and the ease that comes with knowing that here are knots that will need to be patiently untangled, or negotiated around. Struggling is a youthful waste of energy. Tantrums.
Although this may not at all be what the poet intended. This step back, and this admiration for life itself. For the linear/non-linear branching of a tree that is the imprint of the body in the world, in time, in space.
This lover, that lover. I read that women might retain the DNA fragments of every man she has been with. Chimeras.
Would be nice to think our bodies might be redemptive of those who have done us wrong. Might renew what is good. A kind of homeopathic remedy for the species.
Our gradual dying is a gathering of life. We spill our seed in the earth eventually. We turn from lovers to mother our mothers. We turn to lovers. Late summer fruit* is the sweetest, the wettest.
And this year has not been off to the best start. A lag, and a rush, and dealing with new realities.
I read today about – was it Seneca? – who admonished people for waiting until 50 or 60 to begin living life intentionally. And there was something about focusing on being present, not on accomplishments. Of course, the people telling us this have all accomplished enough to say such a thing.
With a straight face.
I arrived in London on the 23rd of December, and ran down the escalators at every tube station. We ran 17K on Christmas Eve, and I woke up with runner’s knee on Christmas morning – only to bicycle across London to see the boys anyway. Now, two weeks and one painful New Year’s run later, it’s clear there will be no marathon for me in February. It’s a blow to my confidence.
And not the only blow to my confidence this month. There are work issues, other health issues. There is aging, which is probably somehow related to both.
There was a storm. And I find that I’ve let myself slip into an unproductive/objective (not present) perspective.
I’m behind in my correspondence.
Today I prodded E. to head out for a hike. (Another thing on my holiday to-do list was to get a new winter hiking jacket. Not done. After 20 minutes, my coat was soaked through. Thank goodness for wool.)
We headed out to Synesvarden, which seemed like an ironic name for the spot today. White: a 360 degree view of white. We take what life brings us. Today, it came a few meters at a time. The cold-stiff orange and yellow tussocks, the granite rocks that might be coated with ice. Shadows that grow into figures that mumble or holler, “good day” as they pass.
There was a dog barking somewhere in the forest, and we circled back to find her. But she went silent.
Isn’t there a culture that conceptualizes the future as something that comes at us from behind to overtake us? Maybe they are the only ones to have it right. All this planning, all the mirages we see ahead of us. The clump of earth that should be frozen, but that rushes suddenly from behind to slip into the present, under your foot, in the form of soft and giving mud. And there you have it: the irretraceable moment that is a wet sock.
There have been bright moments. Moments that shine a bit, like glassy eyes after half-a-bottle of wine. And I keep telling myself this will pass. This grief. Because that is what this is. It seems by body understood it long before my mind caught up to see what the problem was.
There is more to this new challenge: the surrender of ambition, the letting go of childhood dreams that were based on values that I may have never fully accepted, and don’t accept now. Fears can stand in the way, no doubt, but fear can also deflect the original aim of an ambition.
“Because we didn’t get enough love of children.” That is probably more of a paraphrase than a quote, from a fiction character in a musical.
There is that moment. When you get to the brink of where you deliberately headed, and you realise: this isn’t at all what I really want.
Coddiwomple: to wander purposefully towards a vague destination.
It’s time to admit it: to live intentionally doesn’t have to involve ambition. There is purpose in being in the moment, in being in the white with wet socks, and mist in your eyelashes.
I’m glad you’re beginning to recover from the nasty cold. I think our bodies often take the lead to slow us down when we need to recalibrate. I’ve been sleeping 9 and 10 hours a day the past week. Funny that the body needs to recover with sleep after a depression. I still half-expect, when the fog lifts, to have the energy of a calf let out of the barn in spring. But no.
I dragged myself out of bed this morning and ran 6K on a sore ankle. The marathon is in 11 weeks. At this point, I really need my mind and body to make friends. Although right now, in the bibliotekette, with the space heater blowing on my ankle, the rosemary oil burning, and the red curtains pulled, I am peaceful. Optimistic, even. The sun will be up soon, and the skies are clear. There is a sparrow calling outside the window now, actually. Which reminds me that I need to check the feeder on the porch. The magpies eat from it. Greedy bullies.
I can’t say I enjoy running in the cold, but I have to admit that the range of temperatures on these mornings brings me into my body. After running, I peel off the fleece tights and do the 15 minute yoga routine; my thighs are splotched with swashes of bright red goose bumps.
Then a hot shower, and stepping out into the cold again to towel off and dress. When we moved into this house, E. bought me slippers. I haven’t had a pair of slippers since I lived with my grandparents. Slippers were necessary then. One of the rules. I find them comforting now, slipping into them every morning before I head into the kitchen to make coffee. Flop, flop, flop.
And there is something about a space heater. It brings with it all the ambivalence of nostalgia. One particular, tiny, cold two-room house in the desert, and the tiny, bright-red filaments of the metal box that kept us warmish. I slept on an army cot in the bedroom. (I remember that once I was sitting on the edge of the sink to brush my teeth, and the whole thing ripped out of the wall and water flooded the bedroom, cot and all. I got in trouble. But that’s a digression, so before that…)
The little space heater: warming one side of the body at a time, while I ate TV dinners in front of a portable television (rabbit ears decked with aluminum foil). Star Trek. Gilligan’s Island. As the Norwegian’s say, I was a “sofa pig”. But on a kind of rotisserie. My left side would get red and overheated. Then cold, when I turned to warm the right side.
This tiny bibliotekette is like that: Like soup from a microwave; spots of cold, spots of hot. Like the currents of a natural spring in the desert. The heater blowing hot air on my right ankle, while the left leg is chilled. I cross my legs. Then back again. I think it keeps me aware. Not that I think comfort is overrated, but there is a kind of emotional comfort in being aware.
At any rate, I am glad you found a source of accountability for finishing the book. A regular jolt of awareness to keep you moving. When the book is finally complete, it will be rich with all the life you’ve lived meanwhile. The lulls will demonstrate their purpose in resonance then, I’m sure.
It is so interesting to read what you write about photography “deepening the experience”. My first thought was – well, that is why I am not a photographer. But then, I have discovered that taking photos does make me stop and appreciate the moments. I remember you telling me once how photographing people, for you, was a matter of looking for the beauty. I’m going to start doing that. I mean: I do look for the beauty in people I love and trust, in my students (something teaching has taught me), but generally not with strangers. I think I am too defensive. I need to learn from you. Camera in hand, or not.
Okay – back to accountability. I think external accountability can be a good tool for avoiding perfectionism. I know I function so much better with an external framework. I’m far too skilled at getting in my own way. I take on related projects – related, but still: diversions. For example, right now I have a translation project, waiting on my computer in the other room. Midwife to someone else’s creativity again. I’ve written before about that, though, haven’t I? Since I’ve always thought of myself as a selfish person, this must be a form of self-sabotage. I procrastinate with work guaranteed to get in the way of my own work. I can almost convince myself that there is a good reason I’m not making as much progress as I’d planned.
Yeah, so. This is the kind of morning I’m having. Mindless chatter with a friend, whom I miss.
Your friends seem to be living the dream. It’s really inspiring. But it brings me back to what I was writing about the other day – my tendency to begin with the desire to simplify, then working around full circle back to consumerism and a concern with image-projection. There are berries here in the forests if I head out on the weekends. Did I tell you we are setting up a greenhouse this spring? That will have to do. I don’t get a cottage by a stream, but I have a tent. Best of both worlds, if I make it so, right? I had a good day at work today. At least some of it. One of those days when I know I’m doing something useful. These tendrils reaching into the periphery of my students’ rich lives. The good, the difficult, the things that make them grow. I learn, too. Am better prepared for the next bit of drama. All this is to say, I looked at your friend’s photos and kept my envy in check.
You’re right. We are blessed, Di. It just doesn’t always feel like it. And like you said, it seems to be about balance. What pays the bills vs. what makes your heart flow. What we do for others vs. what we do for ourselves. Maybe most importantly: What we desire vs. gratitude for what we have?
Not sure if your question about the throat chakra was rhetorical. But for what it’s worth, I think you’re beginning to break through the block. Are you living somewhere where you can sing? (The only thing I miss about driving a car is driving alone and belting out show tunes.) I think belting out a tune is good for your soul because it’s almost the same mechanism as screaming: lifting the hard palate, really using the lungs, focusing outward. It’s cathartic. So is vomiting, I guess.
But singing is more pleasant. At least for the person doing it.
First get better. Then sing.
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.
Surely we are all little more than a tangle of contradictions. I wonder what you would say now about the theory that we have no fixed personality? That we are malleable entirely, according to the choices we make in any given milieu. Actually, I wonder if we haven’t begun to circle around to something akin to the Quaker’s Moral Treatment you espoused, a hundred and thirty years ago. The structure, discipline, and the traveling that stretched and untangled your mind – at least much of the time.
Reading your letters, I often wondered if your travels marked the end of a “no thing” season, or if the traveling itself ended it. The getting up, the physical leaving. The moment you stood outside the door with what you could carry, and the confidence of knowing you had all that you needed.
I have always felt strongest when I had few possessions. Leaving my homeland (that sounds ridiculously quaint) with a bag of books, some clothes, a blanket, and a doll. And then, in all the turmoil of beginning again after the divorce: choosing not to fight over a rolling pin; I took my books, clothes, the blanket and the doll, and photos that function like old library index cards to help hunt down complete memories. In my tiny apartment that overlooked the harbor, everything had earned its place. And the high ceiling provided empty space for both grief and joy to pass through, or hover.
Maybe there is something to the cycle of accumulation and purging that is very like the sorting they say we do as we sleep: distinguishing what is necessary to keep in detail, and what is necessary to keep only in spirit. A way of shedding the things that helped us to get this far, and then making room to move on. To grow. Like lobsters.
Friday I saw an Instagram photo that made me envious. It reminded me of how disconnected I’ve become again – disconnected from what adds value to my hverdag. Simple, every day pleasures. Like slowing to a walk where the trail ends at the wooden bridge, and catching the flash of a small speck of ice in a crack. Noticing winter. Noticing the man who sleeps by my side, breathing easily, and who wakes to tell me I’m beautiful.
Even simpler things, like sitting down with a clementine; peeling it slowly.
They say now (again) that citrus fruits help elevate one’s mood. But then, you knew that. And you didn’t take them for granted: all the fruit you were given while you were recuperating in England that half year.
Maybe that is all the difference between us: not the fruit, but the attention and gratitude?
The problem is, I’m thinking I need to purge again -to get control over all the “stuff” and clutter that is a disturbing white noise – I want to move on, stretch, grow, change, but I quickly fall into a consumerist mindset. I imagine getting rid of all my kitchen equipment, and finding earthenware bowls that (I believe) will fulfill a sensual longing. I envy a particular state of mind (or an imagined state of mind) that is calm and receptive. And I keep thinking that things will lead me to it. The perfect spiritual knickknack, the peculiar talisman.
I imagine selling the house and moving into to a simple cottage, with a garden and a stream that flows just a stone’s throw from a sunny porch. I’ll get rid of all my costume jewelry and buy leather bracelets. Ditch the tailored clothes for paisley caftans.
I imagine a whole list of things I could acquire to successfully simplify my life. I could get up and leave.
But on Sunday I took a deep breath, organised my bookshelves, threw away the wilted flowers, and paid my bills.
And this morning – after the run and meditation – I sliced an apple, boiled an egg, and wrote a poem. I kissed my husband when he left for work.
Maybe beginning a new season really does work like any charm does. Or prayer. It’s all a matter of attention, and of making enough space for the grief and the joy to pass through, or hover.
Though I would still really like my own special hot chocolate pot. And a gas stove. And a stream that flows just a stone’s throw from the balcony of a cottage in the woods.
Don’t lie to me. I know you were never really satisfied either. We all want what we want and we reach for it. Things, or accolades, or whatever it is we believe will make us feel… untangled.