The Person We Have Never Been

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!

A Practice of Kindness

The 32nd leg of the virtual Camino.


I was listening to a podcast yesterday about the negativity bias. It turns out that – no matter what we say – we prefer to read news articles that frighten us, or anger us. You want more hits on your blog? Tag it with negativity.

Today our guide isn’t encouraging us to meditate on a subject, but to act: to do something kind for ourselves and for someone else.

I think often about kindness. And while, I know it’s not the same thing as being kind, it is a necessary prerequisite. Kindness isn’t the same thing as indulgence. Being kind doesn’t always mean making something pleasant or even comfortable. And there is also the consideration of perspective and – well – arrogance in choosing a specific act of kindness: I know what is best for you.

Being kind requires practice, because it requires boundaries. I mean, come on, The Giving Tree, might be one of the most horrifying bits of indoctrination ever dreamed up by the want-to-be-pampered. Shel, what were you thinking? Every pregnant woman should read this as a lesson in the difference between indulgence and kindness. And how no matter what she does she’ll get the blame for her children’s egoism and wind up an old stump – and be expected to be happy.

Show me a #%&!! happy stump.

But I digress.

May she dwell in safety.
May she be happy and healthy.
May she be free of afflictions.
May she be at peace.

There are a lot of versions of the loving kindness meditation. Some use the phrase, “May she live with ease.” When I use those words I remember that one of definitions of ease is to move carefully or gradually. I’m not wishing an “easy” life for anyone. And I am not being mean.

I try not to think of kindness as tokens or events. I once saw a kind person buy a coffee for someone sleeping rough in London. When she gave it to the man, he pulled back his bag to show a row of five or so full coffee cups. That last thing he needed was another cup of coffee on this weekday morning. The last thing she needed was to be made to feel stupid for her kind gesture.

Intention matters. I do believe this. But maybe intention isn’t nearly enough.

I’m afraid if I mete out kindness like cups of coffee with good intentions, I’ll limit the good I do in the world. I used to have a routine of checking off “say one kind thing to someone a day”. It was embarrassing to admit to myself that my intentions were all wrong. It was about how I felt about myself: whether I was succeeding at being kind.
I wish I could claim that kindness comes naturally to me – as a habit. But the truth is that my practice is a continual monitoring and censoring. Is this action, are these words intended to hurt? Or do am I genuinely and freely wishing this person well? Am I expecting a reward of some kind?

This morning I had a difficult conversation with a student. Fumbling with boundaries: respecting theirs, maintaining my own. Conscious of perspectives, and how deceptive each can be when considered in isolation. Asking questions, not making accusations, not pointing out “what we both know” as a veiled threat. We both know it, mentioning it is like stepping up on a stool to look down.

There’s so much to take into account when truly wishing someone well and not merely comforting them: teaching them to move with ease up the slope, not to look for the easiest path.

It requires practice. Habit. Thinking all of that through in the moment is impossible. No doubt that’s why I am still making so many mistakes. And why I hope that intention really does matter a bit. Intention fosters habit. Habit reaps results.

A cup of coffee, eye contact and a genuine smile.

I’m going to force myself to lace up my running shoes now. Running is a kindness for my body – and nothing like an indulgence today: 6 degrees Celsius and raining.

Then I’ll write a good friend. Even though that might be a tiny bit of self-indulgence.