Several times this past week, walking Leonard at night or in the morning, I catch myself in a discussion with my mother. Then I remember: she’s dead. The realization isn’t a moment of sorrow, but absurdity. I am rehearsing for a moment that will never be, a closure that I will never have.
B. gave me a drawing by Story People: “If you hold onto the handle, she said, it’s easier to maintain the illusion of control.” This image is a person clinging to a kind of oar. “It’s more fun if you just let the wind carry you.”
When I catch myself in the discussion, I mentally release my grip, one finger at a time, from the weird fantasy I have had all these years: this running inner dialogue that has become a kind of subconscious tick. Maybe even a kind of hopeful prayer? Against all conscious logic, the conscious acceptance of the situation of the past 30-odd years.
It’s over. It’s never over. I open my hand again to drop the practice, like a prayer bead, like an oar. Only to find it in my hand again.
Maybe this is the underlying conflict/drama in all of our lives: the continuous grasping and letting go. Against our needy, animal nature. Against our cold, intellectual plans.
on the morning that will lead to Christmas Eve. I’m surprised to wake to a white world this morning, after last night’s walk under a clear and starry sky. Something moved through while we slept, and maybe took with it some of the heaviness and left the rough chattering of the magpies.
We have yet to put up the tree and wrap the last gifts. But weirdly all I want to do is make something beautiful. And, as always, desire outstrips both ability and talent. Maybe it is appropriate that Amadeus is a Christmas film in my mind. Certainly a film for the winter season. Maybe the threat of wasted mediocrity can be a drive in-and-of-itself? Maybe some of us need a patron saint of Effort? We need to know less-than-excellence is still worthwhile.
A humble, worn begging bowl is a thing of unique beauty, isn’t it?
This year has been stitched together at points of pain. Losses. Abrupt and imperfect endings. And I suppose beginnings that are easy to overlook if one isn’t attentive to possibilities. I’ve been wondering if there is no such thing as a false start. In the same way that there is no such thing as a “failed” marriage, if one approaches life as growth and change and experience, rather than a map of set mileposts toward an obituary: this is supposed to be your wonderful life. Yeah. That Christmas movie that’s all about shirking your fate if you can’t suck it up through the hard times, give into your circumstances, and trust bow-tied, bushy-browed old men who claim to be angels.
It strikes me as ironic that all of us are storytellers. Ourselves as the heroes in everyday encounters. And yet I can’t seem to write a story. My character isn’t woven into given circumstances, and I can’t seem to plot a satisfying arc.
Maybe there is no arc, though there are arbitrary meeting points that matter very much. It seems to me that waiting for them, letting them come, and having faith in their covert significance is our obligation.
I guess that is why I feel pulled toward poetry. These knots of drama and of peace. Pearls on a string. Life as a room full pre-Islamic “hanged poems”* written by individual ghosts: each of arbitrary length, representing arbitrary lifespans. Each with a qasidah’s lack of plot or narrative.
Here is my search for an artistic home to that inevitably leads me to misunderstandings, accusations, and a keener sense of alienation.
In theatre history class I facilitate discussions on appropriation. But in movement class, I teach square breathing: the alternating states of movement and stillness, and the recognition that there is also life in stillness. In the waiting. I try to explain to my students: just wait. Don’t engage the glottal stop, don’t bear down in your throat, just stay open… and wait.
It’s not even a metaphor for life. It is life.
The snow absorbs sound waves. But the magpie’s bellies chatter like shakers in an improvised concert. The front yard is filled with tension. A drama without narrative.
The magpies are quiet now.
They will begin again. Like barren Shakers, they’ll gather and make something beautiful.
Then they’ll be gone. Again.
*It is interesting that the phrase I found today was “hanged poems”, when I have been taught that the past tense of hang is hung and that the only thing hanged are people. The more common term is “The hanging poems”, which of course is immediate and… haunting.
I spent ten minutes looking for the cinnamon in the kitchen. The counters, the shelves. I even checked the refrigerator because finding lost items there seems to be a thing lately. I gave up and sat down to write, only to notice the cinnamon on the edge of the desk.
At least I can start the day with cinnamon in my coffee.
Tuesday mornings are slow. A rest day, so no run. Leonard is waiting for his walk. I wonder if he’ll be just as disappointed as I am now noticing last night’s snow is already gone and the streets are black.
Last night we walked while it was snowing big, fat flakes. We passed three kids rolling snowballs along the sidewalk. They’d already packed two balls big enough to make a 4-foot snowman. Leonard was excitedly pushing his nose under every mound of snow like it was a treasure hunt. I had just finished a weight-lifting class and my body was warm inside my snowsuit. The snowflakes stung my eyes now and then. The night was light. And I was thinking: real life is good. I was looking forward to crawling into bed with a book and some tart cherry and sparkling water. Not as cozy as tea perhaps, but more conducive to a good night’s sleep.
It seems like life is thinning down to just these things now. The sore muscles and the quest for a good night’s sleep. This happens every year at advent. The season makes me feel threadbare and inadequate. I try hard to create the kind of warm, cosy, seasonal atmosphere of candle-lit Scandinavian film sets from the 70s, and the results are amateur. Cheap.
There is a scene in the 60s film version of Genet’s The Balcony: the jury in the mock trial are cardboard cut-outs. I think this haunts me a little because the community is an illusion. Like a child lining up dolls and stuffed animals around a tiny tea set, everyone present is in agreement–and while that part is nice, it’s a lonely setting.
Like most kids, I guess, I used to imagine the toys came to life at night and talked about me. It wasn’t nice. A bit like my mother and my aunts gossiping about one another when the other wasn’t present.
Back in therapy now, my shrink tells me things will come up again. I find it odd, because what’s not “up” almost continually? But I suppose I am blowing the dust off the memories and handling them. I’m not intentional in noticing new things–new textures and crevices in the tiny landscapes–but they are obvious now. Sometimes insistent.
I’m mixing my metaphors.
I finished writing a new play for the students and a colleague asks me why I would do that when I could find a perfectly good script that would work.
I just don’t think I belong in this world sometimes. I feel like a cardboard cutout watching, but looking in the wrong direction, eyes fixed. Try as I might, I just can’t get myself “fleshed out” in the real world with everyone else. I don’t really understand what the judge wants from me.
I find it funny that my shrink refers to a specific work-related event of last year as “the trauma”. I mean, considering my childhood, my mother’s recent death and other serious, personal challenges of the past 2 years, it seems an odd thing to focus on as a trigger. But then yesterday: here we go again. I am looking at this latest bit of contention as a kind of work-in-progress evaluation to see if I have become stronger these past months. If not stronger, then more like a duck.
I slept all of three hours last night and am running on coffee this morning, but yes. I find that a lot more rolls off my back these days – whether that is a result of me growing or me being too broken to care anymore.
I am beginning to consider a third alternative as an explanation: I am finally learning to let go. All these morning meditations and evening shakti mat sessions, isn’t this actually the goal? Am I confusing this faint sense of emotional equanimity with “broken”?
Last week there was an article in the national paper about a woman who retired from television at 42 because she didn’t want people to see her ageing. The next day an older man wrote a lovely little meditation on ageing, referencing so many writers. He paraphrased Knut Hamsun, while keeping Hamsun’s archaic word: egal. I had to look it up.
Hamsun said something like: I find myself surprised by the joys that this advanced age has brought. My mind has never rested in such equilibrium.
I shared the article with E. and his first reaction was to wonder if that word egal implied indifference. It’s an interesting distinction: indifference vs. emotional equilibrium. It’s also a question common in Buddhist discussions I’ve listened to. So it is interesting to approach it again from this perspective.
I think the use of the word here is similar to the use of ambivalence, which seems to be losing its distinct definition, to feel two strong and opposing feelings about something, and is more often used colloquially to mean indifferent. As though a resistance against falling on one side or the other with a sense of righteous passion is a bad thing.
I have spent far too much of my life rushing to judgment. Defending myself from judgment. Most often from a place of insecurity. It hasn’t served me well. I am going to try to give myself permission to deal with a tempered ambivalence and equanimity in my thoughts and in my feelings. I am going to resist the pressure to pick a pre-defined box for my perspective on the things that happen in my life. No more, clicking in place and responding with predetermined and “appropriate” feelings – actions.
It feels somehow relevant that I was lecturing about Sartre’s No Exit and how “Hell is other people.” just this past week. This kind of Hell is just an illusion – a perspective – isn’t it?
I guess this is a pledge to myself: to unlearn how to respond to events. Triggers. Whatever one calls them.
E. walked Leonard with me this morning. The moon is still nearly full and somehow comforting. I love how the blackbirds sing so loudly in the dark. Home again, I made a huge breakfast salad with fresh chilis, broccolini, spinach, and the last bit of kale from the derelict greenhouse. Two soft boiled eggs and a splash of olive oil. More coffee.
E. is putting in a new ventilation system in the house, which means he has taken down some of my bookshelves in the little library. Books are piled on my desk. The little rug is folded and laid on my chair. And the floor is littered with power tools and bits of shiny who-knows-what.
And it has been an excuse for me not to write in the mornings.
Now I find we are well-past the midpoint of November and my mind is months behind in terms of getting myself together. Leonard is still struggling with the fact that E. and I are back at work most days. He’s still having accidents if we leave the house in the evening, or – weirdly – when I am gone for days and then return. He’s taken to pinning me down on the couch and refusing to let me even look up.
I get it.
I pull the thunder-shirt tight across his belly. Then I wrap myself in a huge sweater and sit down in the office to try to write. The walls are white, not the deep green of my library. I hear the traffic, not the blackbirds. And I tell myself that this is okay. I tell myself to take a deep breath. I inhale the damp from the rosemary oil. What are the morning requirements, really?
I walked Leonard at 4 am, slipping twice on black ice, but righting myself in time. Then E. and I ran alongside the lake, where the gravel is dusted with ice, but still easy to negotiate in the dark. But walking back to the car, E. slipped on the black ice and he knocked his knee on the asphalt. He’s icing it in the other room while he drinks his coffee.
My alarm goes off to remind me to take a pill. I am back on the salts.
And I am wondering how one climbs out of a morning like this. Maybe with the sunrise?