It’s high time. I have to have a talk with my Self.
I jump right in. It’s going to be awkward, what I have to say. And Self can be very—fragile and defensive. No sense in beating around the bush.
“Self,” I begin (because it’s always good to call people by name, to personalize it, right?) “You are so not perfect. Face it: you’re just human. You make lots of mistakes. You can’t do it all. You will never be perfect,” I repeat the not-perfect part for emphasis, to be sure she’s getting it. “Just relax, Self. Good enough is good enough.”
Self answers, in her most icy annoyed tone: “I never SAID I was trying to be perfect!”
“Then why,” I ask. “Why are you so impossibly hard on yourself when you fall short? When you say the wrong thing, for instance. When you can’t get it all done. Or when your writing isn’t quite—on the mark?”
Self thinks hard.
Self remembers something a friend showed her the other day.
Underlined in a book she doesn’t even know the title of (can you believe she can’t remember?) she read the words of some learned wise person who said that perfectionism is a form of egoism. That it springs from thinking you’re so good you have to do better, be better, be—perfect. And that it’s actually quite generous and healthy and more productive in the end to allow yourself to be imperfect. To treat yourself kindly, to encourage your Self.
Self thinks of the last few days, where she felt so inadequate in her Self and also so damn worried about the state of the world. As if she were falling short by not fixing the world. As if she could somehow do more than her best and miraculously end hate and prejudice and also finish her novel, and meet some deadlines all in one week. She has a choice here: get mad at her Self —or relax.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Self suggests. And as usually happens when my Self and I relax into what is, instead of what we fear, we find joy again and the world suddenly reveals its lopsided and absolutely imperfectly perfect beauty. Everything glows brighter.
Good enough is good enough.
And the sunsets in June are the best.
A very dear friend asked how I liked my new place.
“It’s like I’m on vacation,” I wrote back. “But underneath it all seems wrong. I’m a little afraid. It’s like the vacation will end soon, and I have no home to return to.”
“Give it time,” he messaged back. “I’ve come to believe home is now.”
Home is now? What the hell does that mean? I bristled, feeling tender and somewhat dismissed by his words. But I’ve learned a thing or two. Some tricks. I breathed in love and breathed out fear. I thought how the words would sound in my ears, if he were right here: I felt a wave of kindness, and relaxed into the warmth of it. Nope. They still stung a little, those words, stung deep in my heart. And yet, they stayed with me for weeks, like a burr stuck to my pant leg.
Home is now. I couldn’t shake the phrase. Home is now. I gave it time. The words stopped stinging.
Home is such a loaded word for me, laced with longing and fed by a raging torrent of old griefs bottled up inside. Home is explosive, a trigger word, and my friend knew that about me. Home reminds me of the gaping hole in my heart that is exposed when I try to relax sometimes but cannot. It’s the empty place inside, the void I’ve talked through with therapists and moved through with yoga teachers and breathed through in meditation. Home reminds me of the mortar that’s missing in my foundation, that I’ve tried to tuckpoint by reading book after book about healing and trauma, tried to drown with another glass of wine.
Home is the word one yoga teacher liked to use in final relaxation, saying in a sweet calm voice to settle in and find a memory of a time you felt safe and home—relax there, she said. But I had to pretend-relax, because a flooding of panic started up, gushing unexpectedly, like it does. I am (usually) good at pretending to be calm, I learned very early and practiced often.
And as my heart raced in the dim light of the studio, I heard a chorus of old voices, judging voices. “The only thing wrong is YOU,” the voices insist. “You’re being dramatic. It’s all your imagination.”
The flooding inevitably washes drowning girl out into the open, and plain old a-little-lost-anxiety rises up into a nightly tide of bad dreams. She won’t let me sleep, waking me insistently with her thrashing, screaming like a gull in a squall.
In the dim five o’clock light I thought of my friend’s words, of non-judgment, of kindness—I thought of all my friends, how they hold me when I most need holding. Selfishly, I tired of drowning girl’s relentless need of me. I felt fearful everyone else would tire of me, as I tired of her. I was plain tired that night, honestly.
But I have my tricks now, I do. I breathed in love and breathed out fear and I threw her the first line that came. “Home is now,” I told her, in that same tone my mother would use when she’d hand me a cherry dum-dum pop and tell me to hush up. “Home is now,” I repeated, softer, and felt her relax a little, felt her heart, my heart, our heart, slow to a steady rhythm. The birds outside sang and we fell sleep for an hour.
“Home is now,” I recited later, as I walked my new neighborhood feeling drizzle on my skin.
“Home is now,” I repeated the next day, while passing my new coffee shop, my new library, my new favorite pizza place with that amazing kale salad. I repeated it while I did yoga, and while I washed the dishes. Sometimes during the repeating of this new mantra, drowning girl would break through, protesting, thrashing. “Yes, I hear you. Home is now,” I said.
I said it again as I entered the cool green tunnel of the woods near my house last night. The woods always lull her into calm. She watches for the deer to come, and this dusky evening they appeared like ghosts from the past, here one moment, gone the next, a pair of slender yearlings, big-eyed and watchful. Drowning girl watched them watching us, her eyes wide the way only a seven-year-old’s can be.
Later, scrolling through the news, I felt her paddling around about uncertainties and realities—about health care, about the environment, about hate, about people getting sick, losing people you love—about dying. Hard things happen, every damn day. Good things happen, too. I try to make her see the good things as well. Everyday I walk with her, show her the rusting buildings that look like castles against the blue sky and weeds finding places to grow in the middle of a parking lot. I stop to smell lavender and lemon balm, to smile at babies in strollers. I try to prove her how beautiful it all is, this home, this now.
She’s stubborn, drowning girl is. She swims in sucking pull of the past, looking for home. When? she asks me, over and over. When will we be able to relax? When will we be home? I take her to yoga, to meetings. I take her everywhere now. I left her alone too long.
She wears me out with her questioning, the way any anxious seven-year-old would. But she’s stuck with me, and I with her. Slowly and with the help of practices and friends—my wise and warm amazing friends—I am learning to look at her with love, learning to tell her, kindly but oh-so firmly, that I understand when she is afraid. That it is okay. That I will not let her go through this life alone. I tell her I will always stay here with her, that she isn’t alone in the darkness of the past. No one will hurt her now that I’m here.
She’s home. And home is now, and now is—everything.
I’ll just keep saying it, until she believes it too.
The sky today is milk-colored, snow is flurrying down and the naked trees shiver in the wind.
It′s a day when anything might happen, in a world where everything is shifting under my feet.
Things I thought solid suddenly slippery as black ice—
It′s a day to breathe in the chill air and watch your exhale make a tiny cloud. A day to remember what a mystery that was when you were a little girl bundled in your red parka, itchy wool mittens attached by clips.
It′s a day to remember America was not great back when you were a white child in the white suburbs outside Toledo, in a brand-new tract home in a place called Sylvania. No. It wasn′t great. “Great” was merely the undercurrent of every advertising slogan, “Great” was a story spun by ad men and sales men and con men. (They are still selling you fear and telling you it is happiness).
Men who sold your mother on the notion that the ache in her heart could be eased by a Midol or a Virginia Slim′s cigarette or a new Chevrolet or an A-Line dress. Men who told her that her uneasiness was her own fault, and that comfort would keep her safe. Men who peddled fear and separation and complacency. The TV glowed and mama stopped looking at the trees.
(Her eyes were sad but the jingles told her she was happy.)
You were a little girl, and you felt that ache. Feel it still, when big flat televisions trumpet
news news news.
And so you′ve learned to look outside.
It′s a day to look at the milky sky and the black arms of the trees shivering and remember the world is not black and white, not wrong and right. A day to remember that anyone who tells you the ache in your heart is nothing is a liar, or someone who wants to steal your life from you. Anyone who tells you to stop feeling what you are feeling may as well tell the trees to stop trembling in the March wind. Might as well tell these tardy snowflakes to stop falling.
The ache is there to help you. Listen to it.
Denial of what is will pull you under, into despair.
Acceptance may break your heart, but a broken heart is an open one.
Let the snow fall into your heart.
Feel what you feel. Cold, alive.
After all, anything might happen, if your heart and eyes are open.
Walking this weekend brought to mind a poem I remembered about Ginkgos. Their “yellow fluttering fans of light” never fail to inspire me. I attempt and fail to capture them in yellow/fossil/sucked-in-breath poems. They are the last of their division of tree (Ginkgophyta), all others being long extinct.
Ginkgo leaves are found in fossils dating back 270 million years, and though they are messy and somewhat smelly trees—they are my favorites at this time of year.I look up and get lost. Or look down and get lost, depending on which day I come upon them.
Here’s a stanza of the poem I had to come home and google around to find. It’s from “The Consent” by Howard Nemerov.
Late in November, on a single night Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees That stand along the walk drop all their leaves In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind But as though to time alone: the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.
I took this photo because this sky made me think of you, tumbling me back to a warm late-summer night when I was a college sophomore. It was the year after Dad died, and the humid air felt heavy with unheld grief. Grammy was not in the nursing home yet, you were caring for her and no one was caring for you; I was away at college, mostly, or busy running from reality. You looked shrunken but never admitted weakness or asked for help.
Even so, you had a light, Mama. You were never defeated. I remember walking with you, under a sky such as this one, talking of nothing much, letting go of everything but the shimmering sound of the cicadas in the Black Ash trees that were still so lush and strong, and like you were then–still alive.
The ash trees are all dying now, or already dead, infested with borers. You are gone now, too. But that night, under a blue sweep of sky, under a parade of pink-edged clouds, we walked. I still walk, Mama. You gave me that love of moving slower than a bike or car ride allows, soaking in the small things that are everything.
We got ice cream cones at Friendly’s, peppermint stick for you, plain vanilla for me. We walked and laughed and licked the ice cream.
Back home, the smoke alarms were blaring. Grammy had put a pan of milk on the stove to heat, and forgotten about it, gone back to bed. Mostly deaf, the alarm didn’t alarm her at all. The sweet night turned sticky. Things do.
Her days, your days, my days–all numbered. They always were, weren’t they? No matter how we tried to pretend otherwise.
Looking back, I wish we’d spoken of the time. Not about its running out, so much. About its preciousness. Love, Mama. It is sacred. I see that now. I wish I’d loved you better, been brave enough, awake enough, aware enough to hold your hand and ask you if you were afraid, those Fridays in the Chemo center. We held hands. We watched Clarence Thomas’s supreme court nomination hearings. Conservative, which was your leaning, you never disbelieved that he was a womanizer or worse. Coke cans and pubic hair jokes, we watched, uneasy, as Anita Hill was picked apart, as the poison dripped into your veins and the TV we could not turn off droned on.
I wish I’d asked you about what it was like for you as a white Yankee transplanted to the deep south, about race relations back then, as the civil rights era was just stirring, about what it was like for you as a woman in your 20s, and 30s. About the men who maybe treated you like Clarence Thomas treated Anita Hill. About how Dad treated you, when you became a mother and he a breadwinner. About what it was like to be in love, and what happened after that part ended. About what you’d have done the same, about what you’d have maybe done differently, given the chance.
But I didn’t ask such things. I knew the past was full of traps. I was afraid, you see, to ask you anything “upsetting.”
We were resolutely cheerful and ‘brave,’ those afternoons at the Chemo place. If you can call it brave, on my part, not asking you what was ringing in my soul: “Mama, are you scared?”
Because I sure was.
And I bet you were, too.
When I saw this sky, and felt you magically walking with me again for a sliver of a moment, I knew that you’d have liked to have been asked, about being scared, but you forgive me anyway. Your spirit filled me, told me: Always speak from your heart. Don’t mourn the lost opportunities. Stay awake to the ones before you right now. Ask the questions.
So even though I didn’t ask you then what you’d have done differently, you told me today. And whether I believe in heaven or not—and I’m not sure about any of that, Mama—you are with me still.
In the skies, smiling down at me, pink-edged and glowing with love.
A poem for my neighbor’s hibicus
Furled for the night,
see? They’re rolled up tight,
like tissue-paper cigars in the moonlight
in the morning they will spin open
I’ll be walking past
I’ll be sucked in, again
will spin with them, six-and-a-half again
fairy dresses for princesses named
Hibiscus, Rosemallow, Swampmallow.
The white one, shining in a sunbeam?
Rose of Sharon, sweet savior of sinners—
This pink one, I’ll call her Roseasharn Joad
bearing what cannot be borne
blooming when heat swells
when dreams evaporate like raindrops
when petals unwind
magic tunnels in time
swallower of bees
I believe in hope
in light in dark times
in turning off the news
in speaking the truth
in spreading beauty into the world
in the power of small miracles
in starting where you find yourself
in breathing in the moments
To anyone who struggles (which includes, I think, everyone?)—keep trying, keep moving, keep looking, keep reaching. Change requires action and effort. Sometimes action is just a walk around the neighborhood when you’re feeling lost inside. Remember, as Audrey Hepburn said, “I believe that tomorrow is another day and…I believe in miracles.”