I visited a heavenly place last weekend, where the breeze off Lake Michigan made the daisies dance, and the peaceful energy of the Bahai House of Worship filled me with hope. I don’t know much about the Bahai faith, but the tenets are inspiring: that no religion is superior to another, that all people are deserving of respect and justice, that racism must be overcome.
There are nine inscriptions carved above the entrances of the Temple:
– The earth is but one country; and mankind its citizens. (my favorite)
– The best beloved of all things in My sight is justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me.
– My love is My stronghold; he that entereth therein is safe and secure.
– Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner.
– Thy heart is My home; sanctify it for My descent.
– I have made death a messenger of joy to thee; wherefore dost thou grieve?
– Make mention of Me on My earth that in My heaven I may remember thee.
– O rich ones on earth! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My Trust.
– The source of all learning is the knowledge of God, exalted be His glory.
The idea that we are put on the earth to seek justice and to love and feel joy resonates with me. I know there is a lot of work to be done and the world is full of injustice and rage, but it seems to me the starting point for healing is to find the peace within and radiate that outward.
Woke thinking about kindness, about giving, about change.
How hurt people hurt people, themselves or others. Are some people hurt because few people have ever been kind to them? Maybe I’m being unbelievably naive, thinking like a fourteen-year-old girl doomed to be murdered by power-crazed regime, by people who killed humans en masse, like it was a job, and for many, it WAS their job.
But really—if more people saw the world like Anne did, if more people took time for kindness, instead of retreating to mockery, bullying and worse—maybe a revolution would begin?
“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway… And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!”
― Anne Frank
This week brought the twenty-third anniversary of my mother’s death. The morning of the anniversary, I woke gently. I felt so peaceful, as if I had been rocked in my sleep. It reminded me of how I slept on the day she died.
I was a new mother then, my firstborn just five weeks old. Day and night had blurred into a fuzzy netherworld, especially given that I’d spent the past two weeks strapping my (often screaming) baby into the car, and driving back and forth between my home and my mother’s home, an hour away, crying along with the baby.
My mother was thin and fragile but was seeming to do okay despite her advanced-stage cancer diagnosis, right up until she wasn’t okay at all and was rushed to the hospital.
With that news, I strapped baby Avery into the car and drove north and stayed, in my childhood bedroom, alone in the house while my siblings made arrangements to come from much further away. My husband came up and stayed as long as he could, but work called him.
It was a hot July, and humid. Heat saps me in the best of times. Then there was the constant stickiness of sweat, mine and the baby’s; my breast milk leaks and her spit up and all the messiness of the start of life slammed up against the end of life, as each day I strapped Avery into a cotton sling slung across my body and went to the hospital, where my mother was threading in an out of consciousness, more out than in.
My mother’s last words to me were “pretty baby.” I think that was what she said.
At least that’s how I decided to interpret it.
And then my mother closed her eyes and seemed to be asleep, but it was hard to know. Hard to know what to do, so I sat by her bedside when Avery slept or nursed in her sling-nest, and I paced the room and the halls when Avery woke, fussy.
Some of the nurses scolded me. “What are you thinking,” I remember one saying. “Bringing a newborn into hospital crawling with germs?”
Now I’d tell that nurse to fuck off, doesn’t she of all people know that the baby has my immune system to protect her, and is too small to touch things herself, and she’s safe as can be, and besides, don’t you see? I need to be here. I need to be with both of these people. But back then, her scolding just set off a cascade of anxiety. There’s nothing worse than wanting to split your self in two, and that’s how I felt. Divided.
Suddenly I was summoned to a cramped room by a social worker who demanded to know how I planned to care for my mother, because there was no sense operating to fix the brain bleed; they couldn’t help her any further, and a discharge was imminent. I have no memory of what came next, but hours later or perhaps the next day, I was on a tour of the local Hospice, a gleaming new facility, baby strapped on me muttering to be fed, the Hospice lady talking on and on about pet visits while my milk let down, and my tears leaked. My body and my life seemed completely beyond my control, and I was all about control then.
The Hospice lady told me it might be days or weeks before a space became available, and that there was no way to know how soon my mother might die, but they could set up home visits. I was overcome with fear, dread, feeling completely overwhelmed.
When one of my older brothers arrived, I drove back to my home. Word came that a room had indeed miraculously opened at Hospice. Avery fell asleep, or my husband took her away and rocked her—I’m not sure which, but sprawled across the futon, I fell into the deepest, best sleep of my adult life. The sleep of an exhausted toddler. A sleep such as I had again on the twenty-third anniversary of my mother’s death.
On the day my mother died, my sleep had been broken by my husband, gently touching my shoulder, saying, “the phone, it’s your brother…”
It took a long, long while for me to figure out that I had not betrayed my mother by leaving, by taking a break. All I knew to do was hold on, when I should have let go.
I was too scared and tired to see the truth, that she needed me to be gone in order to let go. And there’s part of me now that thinks perhaps she also needed permission to let go herself. My brother told me he read psalms to her, and told her she could go. He had a faith that I did not. She let go. She went. And now, finally, I can see it was not an end at all.
I think the sweet dreamy sleep on the day of her death was her farewell, covering me like a soft blanket. I think the wash of peace on her death anniversary was her hello, her freed energy finding me, holding me for a long moment, then letting me go to live my life.
I’m no scientist, but still, I’m fascinated by the process of scientific exploration and discovery. I enjoy reading non-fiction written by scientists, like Michio Kaku, Hannah Holmes, Candace Pert; my favorite column in the New York Times Magazine is “Diagnosis,” where there’s a patient who presents with mysterious symptoms who is puzzled over and prodded by many well-meaning, smart doctors until one of them hits on the “Eureka!” moment (and yes, I like the TV show “House,” too). Reading and watching TV—that’s pretty much where I learned all I know about science. (And I’ll admit it, it’s sketchy at best.)
Still, it’s gotten to be kind of an obsession the last few years, this science-reading. I read things way over my head, about string theory and physics and opiate receptors. (I’ve learned to accept some obsessions, and this one seems harmless enough.)
I can’t explain quantum theory or recite the periodic table of elements, and after quizzing two kids in preparation for AP Bio, I’m sure I’d never pass if I had to take it myself. But I learned something important. I learned that scientists know and accept something that many writers want to banish from our lives: failure. With a capital F.
Every scientist understands that the way to a breakthrough is via failure. Failure is expected. Every wrong exploration produces not wasted time but valuable knowledge. Knowing what doesn’t work leads you closer to what does work.
Somehow, many of us writers are led to believe that every effort needs to be our very best work. What counts, I’ve decided, is giving our best EFFORT. Sinking in, enjoying the process, imagining the possibilities, letting an idea carry us as far as it will go, knowing that some of those ideas aren’t strong enough to go all the way. And that is okay.
A scientist doesn’t go in hoping or thinking they will fail. They go in excited about what they might discover. Sure, it’s frustrating. What worth doing isn’t sometimes frustrating? Showing up to write and trying it from many angles, showing up and learning what works and what doesn’t, plain old trial and error, is the way to the moment where something alchemical happens.
Where your dozens of tiny words fall away and suddenly, a story or a poem, a beautiful whole thing, appears in their place.