I like the sound of the cars, passing lonely on the rainy afternoon street, the way the sound of the rain rises up like a wave crashing, then falls softly to patter. I like the way the Catalpa dances, tossing her branches like girls toss long hair.
I wait for the power to surge back, for the refrigerator to chime in with the cicadas and crickets cued up by a pause in the rain, I wait for work to resume and life to go back online.
Far away, an alarm siren is hyperventilating, wailing up and down, hiccupping distress. Birds sing and then go silent as the rain begins and thunder rumbles again; chirping and trilling rise up as the sky dries.
The lights flicker on, and with them, low drone of machines waking and then gasping dark and dumb as the power drops out again. Nature rushes to fill the vacuum of quiet, thunder’s rolling again—or is it a dump truck, rumbling up Hamilton?
I like the feeling I have of being all alone, floating in a bubble of sounds that stream around me, under me, over me, as if I am bobbing in a warm river of thrum and strum, rattle and hum.
Across the street, Mary’s raspy voice floats, softened by the weather, “Hey,” she asks her next-door neighbor, “Hey, is your power off, too?” She sings the syllables. Fading rain pats the roof, gently, gently. The catalpa sways slowly now, back and forth, back and forth, steady, steady, like I swayed when I held my babies long ago.
I close my eyes, remembering the feeling of baby skin against my chest. Suddenly Mama’s right next to me, as if the storm has swept her into the house like a wind-sucked sparrow. Eyes closed, window open. Breeze tickling. We listen to the clouds lifting, to the birds calling. We take turns guessing Goldfinch or Cardinal, Robin or Wren, some silly game we began in 1992 and take up this August afternoon as if nothing’s changed, as if no time has passed, and nothing is ever lost.
This was the result of a two-part prompt. In a nutshell, part one is listening, eyes closed, for 6 minutes. Just breathing and listening, noticing whatever sounds are present. Part two was reading the poem “Aware” by Denise Levertov, then beginning a ten-minute fastwrite starting with “I liked the sound”. (one of the phrases from the poem). Any poem that focuses on sound or listening would work for this two-part prompt. Try it and see what happens.
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?
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.