Apparently, we’re all – or at least most of us – still opening bananas from the difficult end. Despite the fact that we’ve been shown how to do it otherwise. But we’re creatures of habit. Literally. Social organisms that move through the world according to patterns of behavior we’ve incorporated into the very physical patterns of our cells.
When my kids were small I took them to the science museum in London. There were holes in one of the walls and visitors were supposed to put their hand in the darkness to touch something. And to guess what it was.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And knew I was supposed to teach my kids to do it: Be curious. Be brave. Be trusting.
Ready, get set, said my brain. But my body said no. What does it really mean to be brave? Is it a matter of handing over the reins to the intellect and obeying a painful kick to the rib?
The body’s wisdom is illogical. This is is a perfect fact.
This fall I tried virtual reality for the first time. We were supposed to walk out onto a beam extending from a high rise hundreds of meters over a busy street. I bent from the waist and peered out of the window. Put my foot on the narrow beam.
I don’t want to teach my brain to override my body. I am inefficient. I will continue to open bananas from the wrong end. Because I am perfectly human. And I come from perfectly human specimens. Who do we think we are?
I’m from holidays of blond, wood-veneered bureaus weekend nightgowns and tuck-ins, hospital corners in the guest room that was my room
I’m from decorative cinder block and roach clips pools that have been drained for years a parade of uncles shaking the etch-a-sketch clear
with hands whose ridges catch motor oil and resin and hold the world tight like desert heat in your lungs when you run and keep running
I was beginning to fall asleep just after dinner last night, but forced myself awake hoping for a good night’s sleep instead. And right before bed I checked my phone to see if any of my students had received positive Covid results. And, yes, to see how many of the Republicans in the United States would be objecting to the election results. And, yes, I wan’t alone in anticipating an actual coup attempt. Or an actual coup.
There are very few moments in my life where I felt or was aware of a kind of quantum leap in my own maturity. But I do remember when I realized I no longer romanticized drama.
Surely I am not the only person who as a kid half-wished to experience an earthquake, a plane crash, or (from my position of privilege) a riot. I remember feeling deprived for not having a Vietnam war to protest. A cause to wear – like a costume. A purpose that would brand me – years before branding was a thing. An experience that would give me and my life a kind of legitimacy.
I suppose having kids helped me understand mortality – and that imagined experience is not experience. And that, despite my fondness for stoicism and Buddhist detachment, life shouldn’t be like watching a movie. You can’t choose to leave the theater, and you can’t forfeit your responsibility.
You are in the room.
I’ve never talked to anyone about this. But I figure we all have been brought up with the same Aristotelian narratives: adversity gives our lives meaning. It makes us significant. It makes us protagonists.
We long for our lives to have an arc, don’t we? Think of every “grown-up” who ever told a young person: you have no idea what real life is. As though we require a satisfying story to justify our existence. As though our experiences aren’t real until they are set in a set narrative framework and everyone applauds. Or gasps.
I know there are people who haven’t felt this. And because of them, I’m convinced that being seen is synonymous with being loved. It’s why unloved children are attention-seeking.
I’m fully aware this isn’t an original thought. But I believe it’s in the moments when we’ve circled around by way of our own reasoning/experience to reformulate cultural cliches, aphorisms, or proverbs on our own, that we are able to see each other as fellow humans. These are the moments when knowledge might become wisdom – and when it should become clear that wisdom isn’t a matter of originality.
I see the paradox in my own thinking: defining wisdom as a matter of realizing that other people think the same way that you do is very nearly defining wisdom as a kind of total immersion into one’s own ego.
But from another perspective, it’s a genuine relinquishing of the ego: understanding that you see things the same way that others have before you. It seems to naturally lead to humility – being late to the party on this one concept probably implies you don’t actually know it all yet. And you may not have really arrived where you think you have.
Can we be loved without being significant? Maybe the greater question is can we love while still believing in the legitimacy of significance.
I went to bed a bit past midnight last night. And have to admit (or choose to admit) to ambivalence: relief and hope on the one hand, a sense of anti-climax on the other.
Trump is no tragic hero. He’s not about to have his moment of anagnorisis, gouge his own eyes out, and wander off to an abandoned Soviet golf course in Kirghistan.
Maybe we make up our stories because it makes it so much easier to love the world. I think that’s what Aristotle as trying to say in Poetics.
“No one ever said life was going to be easy,” said everyone, everywhere.
This morning I sit with the awareness that I was nearly sucked into responding to a comment on an Instagram post: a post with an excerpt from one of my diary entries about getting off Facebook – about my longing for discussions rather than debates, for something other than slogans and soundbites.
Something other than excerpts.
The excerpt was intended to provoke curiosity, to get people (not readers or followers) to click over and read my whole missive.
The irony is that I still find myself skimming and looking for the bullet points in other people’s texts. Wanting tidy responses in easy packaging, so I can move on with my own opinions. I don’t read an entire article before forming counter opinions and criticism. I think I reshape those opinions and criticisms as I read more of the article, but I don’t refrain from drawing conclusions at any point along the way. At no point do I just listen.
I’m tightly pressed to the writer’s words, hounding them, countering them – blocking them from my own mind. It’s a weird dance.
I read defensively. I had no idea there was such a thing. So I’m now wondering if this is about my age, my education, my social media habits? Am I feeling that the comment section “includes” me in a kind of debate of sorts – a performance arena? Do I feel it obligates me to participate?
Was there a time when I would read an entire book before forming an opinion instead of sketching one as I go? Part of my consciousness taking in the other, part of it very consciously obstructing understanding with these loosely formed, amorphous – but presently forming and reforming – prejudices.
And is all of this connected to a fear of being “irrelevant”? No: really, the phrase in my head is “not relevant”. The contemporary insult. The fear of which seems closely tied to the fear of ageing.
Paying attention is one of the kindest things we can do—for ourselves, for others.
I’ve joined Medium. Which is interesting.
Because nearly all the articles I’ve seen about mindfulness, about self-awareness, about spiritual growth, are bullet points of advice.
I am pulling Annie Dillard off the shelf again. I’m looking for writers who are asking questions instead of offering conclusions. I want to see the workings of other people’s minds at the point of their mushiness, their unbaked, reptile-fetal promise exposed.
I saw a tweet this morning by a person looking for “more intellect, less wisdom” in their poetry. I’m curious what they mean by that, but seriously doubt that a fruitful conversation can be had about the subtleties of those words in soundbites and “threads”.
Just thinking about attempting it in that form makes me anxious. I want a cup of coffee, a deep chair and a long, well-formulated exploration of ideas.
or… Why I am still uncomfortable calling myself a Buddhist.
The past two mornings I’ve been hearing a nearby dog whine. Another bark. I haven’t been able to figure out where exactly it’s coming from. I’m wondering if the neighbor got a new dog who’s frightened to be alone during the day.
I went outside, but still can’t be sure where it’s coming from. The sound bounces around these houses so much when the air is this clear. It seems to be coming from everywhere at once.
Howling now. But Leonard is unperturbed. I figure he speaks dog language better than I do, so maybe it’s nothing to worry about. People, too, can bitch at the drop of a dime with little cause.
Storms in teacups and all that.
For some time now I’ve been listening to one teacher’s dharma talks. I like them because he refrains from homilies, and seems to favor consideration over dogma. He gives his interpretation of what is thought to be the words of Gautama Buddha, and often reminds the listener to ask themselves how it rings – or doesn’t ring – as true in one’s own life.
Yesterday in a talk, he interpreted a passage regarding the division between spiritual life and family life. For the first time I found myself disagreeing so strongly I began to question the foundation of the eight-fold path. I’m usually fine with contradictions in metaphors. I don’t think we are ever in a position to see the entire elephant, and that actually – a perfect metaphor that feels true from every perspective, would no longer be a metaphor and would become a kind of false dogma.
But here, the teacher pointed out that in order for one to “truly” follow a spiritual path one must leave one’s family. He said that if you chose family life you would be “behind” on your spiritual path and you would not actually be following the eight fold path.
There are times when I feel the crone in me rise in her mature glory. This was one of those times.
I once heard another Western teacher talk about how one of his gurus was cruel with him often – sarcastic and insulting. And this teacher explain that this was a good thing: the guru was teaching him in this way. My first thought even then was, yes, I suppose if you are a monk with no family (no siblings, no children, no acerbic aunts or creepy uncles), you might need someone to treat you poorly so you can learn to deal with it. Who needs family if you have a guru who makes you feel like sh*t?
When I read that the Dalai Lama has an acolyte sleep on the floor in his room in case he is thirsty in the night, I nearly wept. In his book An Open Heart he explains how much a devoted layperson should meditate each day. I was in my 40s then with two kids and a full-time job. Even with the privilege of having a responsible husband, it would have been nearly impossible for me to fit so many hours on a meditation cushion.
What about the single parents with multiple jobs? Because I don’t believe in reincarnation or a caste system, I reject entirely the notion that anything that is not a valid choice for everyonecan be a tenable ethical- or spiritual imperative. I believe that to accept these ideas is egotistic, and at odds with the understanding that the self is an illusion.
The idea of “My spiritual path” seems at odds entirely with skillful intention. To relieve my suffering by avoiding what makes people suffer, is not skillful living. It’s avoidance.
This is the crone in me whose earned-wisdom will not be dismissed by people who do not have to sit in meeting rooms with colleagues, or negotiate bedtimes with children.
There are many paths and many teachers. And it’s not a friggin’ race anyway.
(Yeah, avoiding harsh words isn’t exactly my strong suit – being a teacher lets me work on that way every day.)
“Haaaaaa”: allowing that storm to settle. It’s a bit like reading tea leaves in the aftermath.
Suffering is not enough. Life is both dreadful and wonderful…How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural–you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.
THICH NHAT HANH
If that is not the perfect definition of real “self-care”, what is?
So many years ago a therapist told me to imagine myself as a child, and to comfort her. It’s interesting to revisit this now. Back then, I was in the position of an older sister. And now – I’m old enough to be a grandmother to her, and the exercise is an entirely different experience.
It’s funny to notice how easily my attention turns back to my current self and my current “sorrows”. Even in the midst of the exercise: “Oh, but what child takes an old woman’s words seriously?”
But I do notice this happening, and I can smile at myself – at both the my sorrows and my silliness. I’m counting this as a sign of maturity, as well as proof that I am still gloriously fallible, i.e. human.
Tending to wounds becomes habitual. So habitual that we learn early how to make them ourselves, to serve our tending.
We cut ourselves down to be able to experience nurturing. Even if we are alone in nurturing ourselves.
And maybe this isn’t a wholly bad thing: maybe this is how we learn to recognize our better selves.
This morning I’m thinking I don’t want to lose this complex relationship with myself. I’m not ready to even aspire to be singular – as the wisest version of myself. It’s enough that I glimpse her now and then these days. I’m not ready to give up childishness entirely. What if that means an end to growing –
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.
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 tried to wrap myself with that once, and my 21 year-old son said, “Mom, you’re not that old yet.”
It’s the weekend, and after meditation this morning I pull Words Under the Words from the bookshelf and settle onto the couch with a cup of tea. Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Grandfather’s Heaven” ends with these two stanzas:
I think Grandpa liked me too
though he wasn’t sure what to do with it.
Just before he died, he wrote me a letter.
“I hear you’re studying religion,” he said.
“That’s how people get confused.
Keep it simple. Down or up.”
I once wrote about my Grandfather telling me, “Stay away from philosophy. There’s nothing of God in it.” (I must have shoe-horned that into a poem, because I can’t remember the rest of the poem.)
When I try to remember if my Grandmother ever gave me this kind of straight-up advice, I remember, “Don’t slouch.”
And, “Don’t tell your mother. She is going through a lot, and can’t handle this right now.”
Looking back, I try to understand how people make simple rules, and routes of least resistance. I remember asking my Grandmother if she saw Goodnight and Good Luck when it came out. She said, “I don’t have to watch it, I lived through it.”
But she didn’t want to talk about it with me.
I’m sure she knew I thought I had something to “contribute to the discussion“. I really was young then. I hadn’t learned to listen — even if I ‘d known the right questions — the way in. It would have been a waste of time.
If she had opened up about the complexities of her experience, I might well have tried to solve them, simplify them with labels and analysis. I’d gone to college, after all. I would have made absurd parallels in an attempt to empathise.
I must have been an ass. If she hadn’t loved me, she wouldn’t have liked me. Looking back, I don’t like me.
When I look back at that woman I was, not that long ago, I love/h– no, not hate. Is there a word for that tender but oh-so-indescribably-annoyed feeling one has for the foolish people we love? Ourselves?
Maybe that is love/love.
How do you pass on the wisdom of knowing that you only know of fraction of all that you don’t know — and nothing else?
How can you teach that the decision not to put a dog in the fight isn’t apathy, but perspective?
Not every route of least resistance is the foolish choice.
When I do the math, I see my grandfather must have been about 60 when he told me to stay away from Sartre. And at 80, he stopped going to church. The thirty-something preacher kept preaching about women obeying their husbands, and Grandpa called, “Bullshit.”
I didn’t ask him how he squared that with God’s rules.
When my Grandmother was 89 she stopped referring to African-American men as coloured boys. She voted for Obama. She laughed when I told her that her grandson was gay, and said that she “used to give a fig” about things like that.
I am afraid I’ll die before I become wise.
I am afraid time will move backward and reveal that wisdom itself is an illusion. It’s just a matter of the “right” answers, according to the prevailing opinion.
Or maybe it’s all about learning not to give a fig.
I read poetry. Poetry that asks questions, and never offers answers. Poems that aren’t tied up with bows. Plays that don’t have “messages”.
I was making the rounds on the blog revival this morning, and the concept of empathy in poetry popped up twice. I was thinking about the links between empathy and sympathy.
About the impossibility of the surety of empathy. The narcissism of surety of knowledge. The quagmire of identity politics and reading, writing, theater-making.
And does all this empathy lead to catharsis? And it catharsis really a valuable experience? Does bypassing empathy — pure intellectual understanding — lead to social activism? Does unfettered narcissistic immersion in “feelings” lead to personal growth that contributes to a greater good?
(Forgive me, I have been teaching Brecht and Artaud again this term.)
Or does it all simply lead to self-satisfying, simple answers?
Maybe: “I just don’t know” is one of those.
Or maybe “I don’t know” is the wisdom of knowing when no one is listening for the questions.
The negative capability of wisdom.
The recognition of the ego-driven nature of persuasion.
Maybe all poetry is love/love poetry.
So I read. And I learn that I don’t/can’t know. (Like all the implications of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem.)
And I write. And I feel misunderstood, and overlooked.
But I’ve grown up. At least grown up enough to drink. So now, I drink when I get rejection letters. Or when my writing is met with shrugs.
After a glass of wine, my inner critic no longer tells me I need to get the answers right for anyone.
After a glass of wine, she actually sounds a lot like Dorothy Parker — ’cause when she’s tipsy she sides with me, and turns on everyone else. She love/loves me. And I, her.
Like I said. I am afraid I’ll die before I become wise.
So, in the meantime. I’m going to go write a list of questions. Maybe if I leave enough questions in the world, someone will wrap my corpse in the mantle of old women’s wisdom.