I’ve been a bit sick the last few days. Actually, I’ve felt really, really crappy, and unable to work until today. I felt both emotionally and physically ill. The anniversary of the election of the pussy-grabber, the unfolding exposure of so many #metoo stories, and the fact that there are still so many supporters & deniers of the pervasive poison of misogyny and abuse all collided with a nasty virus and exploded in bad dreams where I woke feeling in danger, panicked (and also, sick!).
The bad dreams are an old pattern, one I am learning to heal with writing and movement, study and support. I really thought I was past all that. But when it came roaring back I felt like I was a failure, like my efforts were futile in this world. I felt defeated there for a little bit. Old pattern, that.
But not all old patterns are damaging. I find drawing what is in front of me so very soothing. I draw, and then color or paint it in. This never fails to make me feel joyful in the moment. I drew obsessively during my whole childhood, then put it away, for the most part. Until recently. Now when I feel unable to drop down past fear, and relax into what I feel—I draw. Being sick, my usual go-to plan of walking and yoga and meditation just seemed too hard.
And drawing? It seemed too fun. (When untangling old patterns, maybe look for the fun, too? I feel better already.)
PS The poem in the picture is a line of a fragment, by the poet Praxilla of Sícyon, 450 BC. She composed many, many poems and was known for her scolia (short lyric poems for after-dinner entertainment). One of the lyric muses, only eight of her fragments survive.
Here is the fragment in its entirety:
Fragment 1 | Praxilla of Sícyon, 450 BC
Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight, and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon’s face, but also the cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.
This fragment makes a wonderful writing prompt. Think about what is the loveliest in your life, in this moment. What would you miss, if you had to leave this moment?
The other thing I loved as a child was writing poetry and stories. Old patterns, re-emerging, to help me make new ones.
Today I started off writing from the prompt: “I will be happy when…” a prompt I used to just ROCK out on endlessly, and I realized I can no longer easily write to that. It made me laugh out loud.
Huh! I am happy now. Not every minute. But now. I am right now. And IN every happy minute, I am there, finally. The wall that kept the happiness slightly removed has dissolved, or mostly anyway. Old pathways persist. I am learning to sit in the sad moments, in the fearful ones, in the frustrated ones, and feel what I feel. My happiness is dependent on being awake to the joy in each day, as well as to the pain and suffering in each day.
Maybe it is: I will be happy when I allow myself to surrender to what is. Let go of what was, and have faith in what will be.
It isn’t just about noticing the birds singing and the way the crickets are, right this minute, chirping in a way that makes me feel it is late September instead of August. Or about feeling the way the warm water flows over my hands as I rinse my dishes. It’s not about deep breathing or asanas. I mean, yes, that is part of it, noticing things, feeling things, being focused and single-minded.
(As a person whose emotions sometimes swallow her whole, this is often a challenge.)
I spent so many years, numbing myself, holding my vacation days just out of reach like a pretty sunset I kept driving towards, endlessly. Holding my happiness hostage to conditions being just right. And I did enjoy the vacations, those golden-hour weeks. Except when I worried about what would be waiting for me on my return. Except when I avoided feeling things that were other than happy. I was on vacation. It was my earned happy time. Merry-go-round.
I’m still sometimes drawn back to circling like a hawk around yesterday and tomorrow. But I’m learning.
I have what I need. I have permission to be happy NOW. Today. Even if I am worried about something or other. Even if I am very worried about bad things that are happening. Injustices. Brewing wars. Feeling powerless and doing what I can and it seeming not ever enough, not enough. Even if it’s hot and sticky outside, which I hate, and even if I can’t see some of the people I love as often as I’d like, even if I miss them a lot: I can still be happy. I don’t have to wait for the vacation or the visit or the pretty weather. Or a new president (I would like a new president though). I don’t have to wait for an agent to love my work, or for becoming certified at something or successful at anything. My happiness isn’t dependent on being a certain weight. My happiness isn’t dependent on being young. I’m not young anymore, and yet: I’ve never felt more at home in my body and the world. My happiness, I have discovered, is dependent on one thing and one thing only. Accepting what is. Even if what is IS NOT what I want. (Plus poking around to find what is sometimes a bumpy process, and yes, you can stir up an angry hornet’s nest, get stung all over, and still feel happiness again despite the welts.)
This spring I skidded into a deep trough of grief. It was a place I needed to go, but resisted, heels dug in, fear holding me back. I clung to the past. My anxious mind flared. “What if you are never happy again?” it fretted. “What if you feel the hard things and it never stops hurting?” My suffering came when I resisted.
When I let go and finally let what I felt rise up—I discovered I was also finding joy. Lots of joy. The more I allowed those scary suppressed feelings to be seen and felt, the more joy rose in me afterward.
Joy feels like the water on your hands when you are washing the dishes and the afternoon light paints patterns on the kitchen floor on a day you have not gotten it all done. On a day when you did what you could, and felt what you felt to the best of your ability, and forgave yourself moments of confusion. Maybe I’ll never quite know myself, and what I feel, all the time? Probably not. It’s also okay to just be with not knowing.
I don’t have to figure it all out to be happy, do I?
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.
I mislaid your address and even the foreign mystery of the spelling of your name in the explosion. The girls’ school papers and award certificates, sheet music, lithographs, photo albums, love letters from my father to my mother, jars full of buttons and odd screws, art supplies and tax records and all those BOOKS everywhere.
Some of the books were yours. They were plucked, charred but readable, from the ruins, and this thank you to you is long overdue.
How calming you were to me during this topsy-turvy time.
Ironically, it was another of your books, “Anger,” that boiled me over like a pot left too long on the stove, unattended. Or maybe I was a pressure-cooker, with a broken shut off valve? Either way.
The resulting fire burnt down my imagined future.
For several months afterward, I babbled and cried. Later, after reading “How to Love” and “How to Walk,” I slowly relearned essential life skills from the ground up, and you, Thich Nhat Hanh, were my patient invisible Occupational Therapist.
Now there are many mornings when my feet kiss the earth as I walk. How I wish you’d climb the forty steps to my little hermitage right now. We could meditate together, with Cordelia, my plump silver tabby.
It is far from Plum Village, but from my roof I can watch sunsets through the golden leaves of the survivor elm. You might wish to climb out there with me? Or maybe just sit beside the window, as the sun sinks in the west?
When you come, I will brew a cheerful cup of tea, and sing you a song about letting go of fear of the unknown, and you will join in on the second chorus, because it is a song I learned from you, dear teacher, who I have never met but from whom I learned to live again, step by step.
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.
Fog always makes me think about how things are not always as they seem. How things that were clear just hours before can become fuzzy overnight, and also how truths that seem distant and unformed can become clear as the fog burns away in the bright glow of awareness.
And sometimes, I just look at the fog, and think how beautiful and unexpected the world is.
Focusing on the beauty of ordinary things gives me hope.
At snack time or lunch, that was a favorite game of my daughters. One would hold up an apple slice or a Ritz cracker or shiny orange Clementine and demand of the other, “Broken or not?”
They were both pretty masterful at holding a broken cracker or piece of fruit in such a way as to camouflage its fault lines. They loved to trick each other, and trick me, too. It was so hard to tell.
Because you cannot always tell if something—or someone—is whole by merely looking, can you?
I remember in the weeks after my father died suddenly, back when I was eighteen. I’d put on lots of mascara every morning, so that I wouldn’t cry, because if I did, it would give me raccoon eyes. I didn’t want any one to know how badly I was hurting. I didn’t know what to do with it, the pain. If I started crying, I might never stop; how embarrassing that would be. No one ever taught me anything but to pretend to be okay, to deny my real feelings. It ran in the family. Schooled from birth, like Tiger Woods was with golf, I was an ace.
My dad pretended he was okay right up until he died from it. Oh, it was a heart attack that killed him, but my personal theory is that sometimes illnesses spring from—or are worsened by— the grinding stress of hiding feelings. And we are trained to hide them, for fear of being labeled ‘broken.’ Our culture demands us to be perfect parents, perfect children, perfect wives, perfect workers. To be magically ‘perfectly adjusted’ without working through grief and trauma.
I used to sometimes reflexively use the phrase, “practice makes perfect,” with my girls, mostly right about when they were supposed to do math homework or play piano or violin. They would always shoot back, “But Mom, you always say that nobody’s perfect!” And I would smile and say, of course, that’s true.
Because I’d say that, too, all the time—like when I’d drop an egg on newly mopped floor, or especially if one of them did.
Of the two old sayings, only “nobody’s perfect” rings true.
The most together-looking people can be the most broken inside. You never really know, unless you get to know someone, unless you earn their trust and confidence, and even then—they have to be open enough or broken enough to expose their hidden wounds.
Which for some people is painfully hard, or even maybe impossible without help and work.
I think the true answer to the broken or not question—as it applies to humans, not fruit or crackers— is that we’re all broken at some point, and not all breaks heal completely. Some wounds ache forever. Being gentle with each other is always a good practice. Because more of us are broken, than not.