I rarely look back at my old journals—too painful—though I can’t bear the idea of burning them or otherwise getting rid of them either. But for reasons, I’ve been rereading the journal that stretches from November 2003-August 2004. It’s interesting to see both that I was asking some of the same questions I’m asking myself now, but also to measure how much my thinking about those questions has deepened in the intervening 14 years or so.
It’s also interesting to see things I’ve pasted in the journal—quotes, pictures, etc. There were a few years in the early 2000s that I had a subscription to O magazine (before Oprah got way too into the secret and other stuff that I think is unhelpful). In the front cover I taped her editor’s letter presumably from one of the fall 03 issues. Oprah and I disagree on a lot, but I have to say she got the following absolutely right:
Do you speak the language of excellence? I believe the choice to be excellent—to push from adequate to extraordinary—begins with aligning your thoughts and words with the intention to require more from yourself. I often hear women say, “I’ll be okay if I can just make it till the end of the month.” Is that what you want for yourself—“to make it?” When you make such a declaration, you may in fact get by, but that may be all you’ll get. Why not do more than survive—why not excel? Every time you state what you want or believe, you’re the first to hear it. It’s a message to both you and others about what you think is possible. Don’t put a ceiling on yourself. — Oprah Winfrey
Preach Miss Oprah, preach!
*I’d write about the government shut-down but I suspect I’ll have plenty of time to write about the one that starts at midnight February 8. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Today was a get up, eat breakfast, go back to sleep, wake up and spend the rest of the day in the pink bathrobe on the blue couch sort of day. They arrive every once in a while; I’m not quite sure why. I suspect it’s something to do with how much I take in and that I just get full up sometimes—with news, with social interaction, with processing what ever I’m processing in my creative writing, and so despite whatever plans I may have had for the day, I simply shut down. Though I feel like I’ll never have energy to do much of anything ever again, I do know myself well enough now that I know I’ll be back to normal tomorrow—counting steps, wondering when I developed such a deep abiding love for Hercules Poirot (as played by David Suchet), wondering how I can sneak a donut or two into my healthy eating plan.
Speaking of tomorrow, apparently Congress is voting around 1 am to see if I’m going to work tomorrow simply to put an “out of office thanks to lapsed appropriations” message on my e-mail and then turn off my computer, or if it’ll be a regular old day. I don’t know if this is a popular opinion, but I’d rather be out of work for a week or so and get a complete budget for the fiscal year than to get an extension only to have to watch Congress play chicken again in another few weeks. And maybe another few weeks after that. And so on and so on… It is not as much fun as one would think having Congress’ failure to pass a budget hang over one’s livelihood like the sword of Damocles. It’s also terrible for morale. And honestly, it’s annoying as all hell that I have to do my job, and they don’t. Sigh…
I woke up this morning an hour earlier than the 8am alarm I had set, seduced, gradually, by the buttery light seeping through the slatted shades. I didn’t, however, get out of bed, instead enjoying the delicious feeling of being warm and cozy and this close to being fast asleep again.
Though I was up till midnight awaiting official word of the federal government “lapse in appropriations” I had thought I might be productive this morning: a walk, a load or two of laundry, the farmer’s market. Instead I made coffee and curled myself back into bed for a long talk with Miss Sarton who had lots to say this morning.
This both made me laugh and feel unkind about my own horror at bad poetry: “Poetry is revolting unless it is good poetry.” (The House By the Sea, June 7, 1975)
While I realize I frighten and even confuse many people when I tell them I’m a poet (No, I can’t perform my poem for you right now. No, I don’t do slams.), I am equally frightened when someone else tells me they are a poet and I can just tell by the way they’ve made said declaration that they write only in rhyme and center their lines in the middle of the page. #poetshadeisnojoke #hiboris
Miss Sarton also said this:
“Because I am thinking so much about the past these days I have come to see that the past is always changing, is never static, never ‘placed’ forever like a book on a shelf. As we grow and change, we understand things and the people who have influenced us in new ways.” (The House By the Sea, June 7, 1975)
We are so often cautioned not to dwell in the past, not to look back, not to wallow regrets. But I firmly believe that “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” (George Santayana and also, according to the Google, Edmund Burke).
Of course, examining one’s personal past is always tricky. You have to do so with some measure of objectivity and compassion for it to be instructive. You have to understand that it may be too soon to look at some events even in the distant past because the emotional trauma was so great, there’s no way to have objectivity yet. You also have to understand when it’s important to revisit the past precisely so you can feel again that emotional trauma, now that you are an adult and can survive those emotions—the only way to get past it—rather than stuff it into the locked cupboard under the sink in which you keep all the poisonous stuff.
If we are to come to a place of compassion toward those that wronged us in the past—which is not the same as excusing their behavior, their actions—we have to examine those events from a place of wisdom,. And we have to come to a place of compassion toward them as it’s the only way to come to a place of compassion for ourselves. Forgiveness is double-edged: we are forgiving the perpetrator, but we are also forgiving ourselves. We have to forgive ourselves for allowing ourselves to be acted upon in such a terrible way. We have to forgive ourselves for all the time and the times we allowed that negative act to drive our behavior long after the inciting incident. We have to forgive ourselves for all the poor choices that were reactions to the initial wrong, and in fact we have to forgive ourselves for reacting not acting.
It is easy to reflect on the past as a way to cast blame. And I have spent ample time trying to connect the dots in this way: my parents did this to me because their parents did this to them and so on and so on. That’s a great narrative exercise, but it’s not really useful work, ultimately. No one wins the blame game; it yields neither compassion nor any useful understanding of how we have been influenced by whatever it is we are poking at. Ah, but what courage it takes to poke the beast and stare it down till you come to a place of compassion? How much more fun and easy to poke the beast and then run, run away.
For no real reason at all I have it in my head that the coffee at the Tastee Diner is not that caffeinated. Which is why I had 4 or 5 cups this morning. And why my hands are currently shaking. B, my favorite waitress, joked this morning that I could get drunk from too much coffee, but really, it seems more like I have the delirium tremens. (Which is such a delicious phrase for something so awful.)
I’m kind of mad at the day right now. I mean if it’s going to insist on being Winter outside, I’d like mine with a side of romance. You know, a smoky eye kind of grayness, or gentle slow flurries, or a winter sun so dazzling it’s practically blinding. Yes, I know it’s warmer than it has been and yes, I know that it’s nice and sunny outside, but really Winter is only endurable if it feels cozy. (And yes, I know I shouldn’t be capitalizing Winter but I’m a poet and we’re known for taking liberties with grammar and such. Or maybe that’s just me and my ongoing war with the English language.)
Let’s see, what else should I complain about today? Oh yes, my hair. I am fulfilling my vow to let my ponytail grow out so I can have a delightfully messy bun thing going on by summer. (Oh, let’s not dwell on the fact that no matter how long my hair gets, there’s such a small patch of it left on my head that I probably won’t be able to make a respectable bun out of it, messy or otherwise.) My hair is lovely and soft, and keeps the most beautiful wave as the curls relax (yay for dirty hair!), but the darned ponytail keeps insisting on hanging limply to the left, like it’s taking that darned Beyonce song way too much to heart. Am I complaining that basically my ponytail is failing to hold on to its erection? Yes, yes, I am.
And now a word about my ovaries… Actually a word TO my ovaries: I’M NOT GOING TO HAVE A BABY AT 49 OR 50 SO KNOCK OFF YOUR HORMONAL B.S. AND STOP PUSHING OUT EGGS ALREADY SO I CAN STOP HAVING MY PERIOD CAUSE IT’S BEEN 38 YEARS AND I’M SICK OF IT. (In case you hadn’t guessed, that was a word from our sponsor: perimenopause….)
And speaking of our sponsor perimenopause, I’m also over the thing where round roughly 3pm I suddenly turn unintelligent for a few hours because Brain Fog. Seriously. Every thing I want to say becomes jumbled up on my tongue, and though I stare and stare at my to do list, in the second between turning away from my to do list back to my computer, I forget what it was I was supposed to be doing. Not just once, not even twice, but basically my brain plays Who’s on First for innings at a time. (Yes, my dear colleagues, that’s why if you ask me a question in the afternoon, I look at you blankly. I’m trying to remember your name, friend. Heck, sometimes I’m even trying to remember where I am and how I got there and if I remembered to put on pants before I left my apartment. Sigh.)
I joke because I appear to have used up all of my tears in the decades leading up to my 40s and though I’m a Prime member, my new supply seems to have not yet arrived. Sigh…
On that note, off I go to stride the moors as one does. And by moors, I mean the hallway outside my apartment, where I think my neighbors have finally stopped looking at me suspiciously as I circle past their apartments secretly casing the joint. As warm as it is, it’s still too cold outside to go look at the houses on Second Avenue (and that would involve determining how much clothing I could wear without either freezing or overheating, and really, who has the time for such strategery), and somehow walking the hallway is less boring than walking on the treadmill in our downstairs gym.
On that note, allons’y friends, allons’y!
I’m writing this with a mild headache. It’s hard to tell if it’s because I’ve truly been caffeine-free today or because the weather is wreaking havoc on my sinuses. It could also be stress, I imagine, given that I may be laid off tomorrow at midnight for an unknown length of time.
I figure I have a choice: Trust God (has got my back and somehow my finances will work out even if the government shuts down) or don’t trust God. I can make myself crazy with worry, or I can count my blessings (which at this moment include a Visa check card,, an Amazon gift card, a small amount in my savings account, food in the fridge and the pantry, heat, hot water, and an unopened bottle of Prosecco, among other things useful for being on furlough.) And I also get to go to the diner for breakfast tomorrow.
And yes, if I really do get furloughed, and if say, sometime next week, I start worrying my head off, you are absolutely allowed—and encouraged—to remind me that I made the choice to trust God. Full stop.
I left the house this morning carrying a small ball of fury (along with a box of decaf Irish Breakfast tea, decaf Starbucks pods for the office Keurig, and a full pint of organic half and half). I was furious both because of a response I’d read to a blog post and because what I really wanted to do, what I needed to do, was write my way through and out of that fury, but there was simply no time in all the rigamarole of heading to work.
I was also furious because I was furious. Anger felt unusually dangerous to me growing up, and I’ve never quite gotten the hang of it. I am scared of disappointing people with my anger. Anger doesn’t please people, and I’m still a (sorta secret but probably not really if you actually pay attention) people pleaser. I don’t quite trust my anger–should I really be mad about X? Anger puts me on shaky ground; I didn’t learn the rules of anger (how to express it, when to express it, what is annoying versus infuriating, etc.), and I always feel unsteady when I’m in a situation when I don’t have a clear understanding of the rules. (I’m fine with being lax on rules, but only if I know what they are to begin with.)
And yes, I realize there aren’t really hard and fast rules to how to be angry, but I do believe there’s anger that’s productive, and anger that’s reductive in that you lose something of yourself by expressing it as opposed to freeing yourself of something by expressing it.
I did eventually go for a walk around lunchtime, out into the cold, three laps around my office building. I marveled at the contrast between the warmth of my feet and the chill behind my knees when the wind picked up. I thought about how I longed to be a woman who went walking in all sorts of weather, a sort of Virginia Woolf striding across the moors (though I prefer to empty myself of stones when I’m walking rather than to gather them up).
As I walked I thought about how my anger arose from another contrast—what people say when they’re trying to be comforting and what is actually comforting. Yesterday was the anniversary of my father’s death and I wrote about how I never felt that my father loved me. Someone responded —and they’re not the first in the few years I’ve been writing about my Dad—that they knew my father loved me and he had a hard time showing it because of his own injured relationship with his father. Which is something I do know about my father, something that breaks my heart for my father, that he could never work his way through his parental wounds the way I’m writing myself through mine.
I also know that the comment was well-meaning, and people are trying to give me a reason for my father’s behavior as a form of comfort. But what would be actually comforting would be for someone to say, “Your father had a hard time expressing his love AND I’m sorry you felt unloved because of that.” Instead the unintended implication is that I’m the bad guy because I’m angry at someone who was in terrible emotional pain himself. Believe me, I don’t feel great about that.
As I type this, this morning’s fury has long dissipated. Hercule Poirot and a Fiona Apple playlist on Spotify will do that for you. But I’m still uncomfortable about writing it out loud. I’m uncomfortable about sharing it publicly. I’m scared of someone being mad at me or thinking that I’m a bad person because of my angers.
But I also know that allowing myself to be angry at my father is the only path to forgiveness. It’s the only path toward my father. Forgiveness is not about forgetting. Forgiveness is about experiencing and expressing anger, it’s about learning who you are in the wake of whatever trespass. Forgiveness is uncomfortable. Forgiveness might even make others uncomfortable. Forgiveness isn’t static; it’s not just a bunch of conciliatory words strung together. It’s a journey. It’s an understanding. It’s an embrace.
Four years ago at this time, my father had roughly five hours and six minutes of life yet. Of course at that moment being alive for him meant actively dying. We get so used to seeing death on TV and in the movies, the way it always happens in an instant—whether the cause is trauma or it’s some erosive disease—that it’s somewhat startling how long and orderly dying is.
The body knows exactly what to do when it needs to die: switch off consciousness and all of the voluntary functioning of the brain, ease the beating of the heart so it’s no longer sending blood to the extremities, slow the breathing of the lungs as the number of cells needing oxygen grows fewer and fewer.
If you have an experienced hospice nurse, they can estimate with some accuracy how long the dying body will remain your father, show you the signs to look for as his body moves from life to not life. You can watch his limbs grow increasingly mottled as the blood flow slackens and you can count as the number of seconds between breaths increases. It can take most of the day for your father to die, you sitting with your sister and one of your brothers on the double bed pushed against the window to make room for the single hospital bed where your father’s gaunt body lies ticking away its time, your uncles and your father’s wife also in the room.
Today, on this fourth anniversary of his death, I confess, I’m not thinking as much about my father’s death, but what might have happened had he lived. If he’d gone right up to the edge of cancer, far enough that my brother, sister, and I would still have taken our turns to help nurse him, but not so far that his body had started its relentless closing down. It is painful to imagine that possibility because I don’t know that anything about our relationship would’ve changed. It is even more painful to admit that that’s the only possibility I see, a return to the status quo.
I don’t see a revised version of the story where ,after my father beats cancer, he decides to become a loving father to me, learn the names of my friends, make more of an effort to come visit me and give advice. I don’t see him trying to map the outline of his absence in my life and doing whatever he can to mend those wounds. I do not think that this is a failure of my imagination; I think it is instead an attempt on my part to accept my father for who he was, even if that wasn’t who I needed him to be.
From one point of view, the poems that I am writing about my fathe, as I try to circumnavigate our relationship may seem unkind. He doesn’t come out as father of the year in them. But I am not writing to accuse my father. It pains me that because of what I write people will think my father was a bad man. He wasn’t. He just wasn’t a good father to me.
I am writing, instead, with the desperation of a woman panning for gold. If I just keep digging through the dreck and the muck surely I’ll find something shiny, some moment where he recognized me as his daughter with his whole heart, longed for me the way I have spent my whole life longing for him, even now when he’s so finally out of reach. If I keep looking, surely I’ll find a day he sat with me, the way he sits with me whenever he comes into my dreams, happy because I’m there with him and that is enough.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” — Galatians 6:2
I’ve been particularly aware over the last couple of years of the many times in the Bible in which we are challenged to care for each other. In both the Old and New Testaments there are hundreds of verses—like the one above from Galatians that popped up in my Bible app yesterday—that call for us to care for the poor, the widows, all those who are vulnerable among us.
Yet every day we hear and see politicians and religious leaders who call themselves Christians do whatever they can to destroy the fragile social net that’s left in the U.S. and/or to support the actions of those who do not take seriously the charge to “love one another as I have loved you,” as Jesus said.
Perhaps it’s a problem of language. In the New Testament, those who accept that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and decide to model their lives after his are called “followers of the way.” I’m not sure when “Christian” became shorthand for the longer phrase, but perhaps that was an egregious mistake. To identify oneself with someone’s name is not necessarily the same as striving to live as they did. Just look at all the people whose actions reflect racist attitudes—whether in micro- or macro-aggressive ways—who are solemnly sharing the words of Dr. King today as if saying is believing.
To believe in an ideal is not the same as living the ideal; you can be a Christian without actually following the way. You can tweet “my prayers and thoughts are with the victims of [X]” without actually stopping to labor before God in prayer about X. This is perhaps the biggest disservice lip-service Christians have done to humanity, devalued the power of prayer.
I’ve been thinking about who Dr. King was. Yes, he was a Civil Rights leader. Yes, he was an orator and a defender of the rights of the disenfranchised. And yes, he was even a man who didn’t always rise above the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes. But he was also a man who grounded himself in prayer, who worked on his relationship with God as the foundation of all the world-changing he was to undertake. He was a man who followed the way of Jesus even unto his death. To which I say Hallelujah and Amen and thank you for your example.
What I Know For Sure: When the chips are down, buy new lipstick.
(And when you want to get back to watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel instead of plumbing the depths of your soul for a blog post because you foolishly vowed to write every day NO MATTER WHAT, scrawl something about lipstick and run!)
I am spending most of today in bed. The parts of the bed over which I’m not sprawled are slowly filling up: my journal, letters from friends, blank cards, books. I have just finished most of a small bowl of Ritz crackers, and I’ve brewed a mug of chocolate peppermint tea to which I’ve added a small squirt of local honey bought at the downtown Silver Spring Farmer’s Market. The tea is in a blue and white Japonesque mug that has both a lid and a basket for brewing tea (though in this instance I’ve used a tea bag.) The mug was a gift from a friend of my sister’s for one of my past birthdays. (Thanks Stephanie!) She gifted it to me with a book of postcards by Hiroshige. I’m still not sure how she knew it was the perfect gift.
In this new apartment, which is really not that new anymore, I rarely do anything in my bedroom but change my clothes and sleep or try to sleep. Though the royal blue walls still make my heart dance every time I enter the bedroom, I have taken to sprawling on the blue couch, or the black wicker chair from IKEA, or one of the gilded cane-back chairs with their vintage golden Chinoiserie upholstery—all in the living room—for reading and writing. It’s a change from my last two apartments, where the heart of my apartment really was the bedroom, where I cloistered myself to think and create though I lived alone and could have full run of the apartment. I think the difference here is that the living room (which I’ve taken to calling “the great room” because it really is one large room comprising dining area, desk, living room, libtaty, etc.) is flooded with light most of the day, and, like a cat, I cloister myself in that heat, the way I used to burrow into the shade and shadow of late afternoon in my previous apartments.
During my fellowship year in Provincetown, I would bundle up, somehow talk myself into bracing the winter cold in order to get to the library, and then return home to my small apartment, which usually smelled like the sea and like apple crisp. I would dump a large stack of books on my bed and crawl beneath the covers, books and journal close at hand. I don’t remember if I would play music. And I don’t remember if there was a nightstand where I could place a mug of tea or tumbler of whisky. But I do remember that rush of happiness at having nothing I needed to do, nowhere I needed to be but in that bed, under those blankets, with Colette or May Sarton or some smooth-talking poet cuddled up next to me.
I was sometimes lonely in Provincetown but also gloriously awash in solitude. Under those covers, in the pages of those books, in the blue lines I scribbled across page and page and page, I could be utterly me, and I could discover more of me bit by bit. I could shelter and hide and burrow and hermit and escape, all in broad daylight, that dazzling, clarifying, revelatory light of that beautiful, hard-luck village at what seemed like the country’s raw edge.
Part of what has propelled me to take up my old habits is wanting to revisit May Sarton’s The House by the Sea, which I reread periodically. It has overtaken Journal of a Solitude as my favorite, I think because in it she lives on the ocean (in Journal of a Solitude she lives on the village green in a New Hampshire town), not in some picturesque Southern beach town, but in Maine, where I imagine the sea is somehow more beautiful because the warm months are spare and the ocean’s beauty leaner and more hard-won. (I don’t know if that’s actually true or not in Maine, but in Provincetown, even in summertime, there’s still something rough and unforgiving about the beach, there is no easy prettiness though it remains compelling all the same.)
Here is a line from Sarton’s entry for November 20, 1974: “I can’t stop doing what I have always done, trying to sort out and shape experience.”
I look around at the blue walls, the hard-won sunlight streaming slyly through the window, the vintage dressing table with its precious glass top that I bought from the late and still-missed Moonshadows in Takoma Park, the vintage press I found on Craig’s list, the discounted tapestry from Urban Outfitters I’m using as a bedsheet, and I think, Ah yes, this quote isn’t just about writing. Isn’t that too what we do when we craft our homes, deciding on which sheets, which bed frame, which rug to float on top of the industrial carpet? Aren’t we sorting out and shaping our experiences with beauty, with comfort, with how we like to feel when we are utterly, gloriously, splendidly alone with ourselves?