On Sunday I woke up in a headachey fog. This feeling was one I only remembered from long ago. It had been so long since I had felt so terrible I thought I must have been mistaken, that this sensation was just a trick someone was playing on me, that it would pass as soon as I got the joke, as soon as I laughed.
I did my regular headache self-care ritual, the things I do that keep these monsters at bay. The advil, the hot towels, the extra bit of sleep. But the beast inside my head would not quiet. I got up and went about my day, convinced that this was all still just an illusion, a memory, a glimpse at a picture postcard of me from another time.
I went to Jackie’s to pick up Max. He had spent the night with Jake. I sat and drank water and tried to hold conversation. I looked pale and puffy and not quite right to anyone. And then it started.
It has been years since I felt this way, the vomiting, the fury that runs through my body causing convulsions, the intense pain that feels like knives in my head. Its been years since physical pain has put me in the space of living breath to breath. Even in the worst of it, I whispered to my sweet self…Breathe, you will come through this…You have so many times before. Breathe….Now again.
A thunderstorm raged outside, thunder and lightening crashing down on one another. I thought to myself, how nice of mother nature to move along in empathy of me. As the rain fell heavy I fell asleep. And when I woke there was a brief reprieve. The rain had stopped. I walked home and collapsed into bed.
Hours later the knives came back. This time no warm towels, no calming tea, no amount of self care or breathing could contain the pain. I was laying on the bathroom floor shivering but needing to feel the cool tile underneath my body. I needed some relief from the fire I felt burning through my head. I kept trying to think of cooling thoughts.
Odette came in and declared that she was not OK with this. She was calling help. I was too weak to argue (much). I lay and whimpered while she called first one friend and then another.
In the hospital I lay, my dear friend stroking my back and soothing my forehead and whispering to me that my help was coming. I wanted to believe her and lived one breath at a time. The nurse came in an injected me with a pain killer. There was one last violent fight–my body versus me and then slowly relief started to set in. Tests, hydration, and then release…home to sleep a deep sleep. Home to slip away into the quiet.
I woke better than I had been in months. Years even. The pain was a distant ache, I looked like I had been through hell and back, and felt tired and battle weary but lighter. Something inside me had burned away in the fire, a distraction, a yearning, a seeking that had finally found rest.
Max and I are cleaning out our car. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, the car has become a moving dumpster. The back seat is full of cereal crums and broken toys and half empty water bottles. Papers that were once too important to throw away are now so faded that we cannot read them, shoved in corners, tucked under the mats. Pollen and dust and old salt from winter. No matter how frequently we tackle the car there are some things that are just stuck–like gum on the bottom of the shoe, hard to scrape off.
We take the cleaning of the car seriously. It is metaphorical for me, fresh starts, clean space. A clean car means we don’t need to apologize when carpooling. A clean car means we don’t need to ponder how out of control our lives seem to be spinning every time we get into the car. And so we empty and vacumm and spray and wipe, this time more thoroughly than normal, but still there are so many layers of dirt and grime. At 10 am we need to call it a day. We have other things to do, this level of cleanliness–this absence of junk and crumbs, this state of significantly less dirt is going to have to be good enough.
Good enough. It is a phrase that can send me spinning in so many directions.
For one relief. As a child, there was no such thing as good enough. Things were either clean or they weren’t. The were right or they were wrong. I spent much of my youth desperately trying to get it perfect with the understanding that only 100% complete would do. When I first tried to wrap my brain around “good enough” it felt like a cop-out. But the truth was I was slowly killing myself with my perfectionism, dying an early death each time I failed over and over again to make the mark. One day, I found myself meditating on the phrase, “I am enough”. As I did, a seismic shift registered right there in my heart and suddenly love for my tender self, love for the part of me that would never be perfect, love that had been locked away and withheld began seeping out of the fault lines, like magma. When I could finally embrace good enough, at work, at home, even in my friendships and relationships I could relax and just be. Good enough are words that give me permission to just exist and know that it is OK, that all will be well. All manner of things will be well. Good enough saved my life.
But there is a shadow side to “good enough”. Now I see that it is its own prison. I see so much suffering in my life…suffering that comes from when people settle for “good enough”. I see it in the far away look in the eyes of the woman who has settled for a good enough marriage, and as a result feels a piece of her soul is lost, unexpressed, dying. I see it in the hollowed out gaze of the friend who is stuck in a career that is going nowhere and has nothing to do with his creative self. I see it in myself sometimes. when I cheat myself, not finishing something that I have labored long at, when I walk away from something before it is complete, when I avoid the hard work of seeing the truth in my heart, when I tell myself that the life that I am yearning for is so unattainable and the life that I have now is just fine. Good enough gives me permission to throw up my hands and tune out. In those moments “good enough” is not a relief, it is an excuse for giving up, stopping and just going to sleep.
What then is the balance point –how can we be in the place where we le to accept what is, to let go of yearning all the while avoiding being stuck in the place where we give up, give in, and stop moving, stop growing, stop trying. Where is the balance point where our souls are free to seek, grow, blossom into what they are without being held back by the belief that where we have landed is “good enough” and therefor we can safely slumber, turn off, tune out and Stop. Moving. Forward.
Whatever that place is, it has nothing to do with my car, and I think sometimes that maybe that is the point. Good enough applies to the things that are unimportant, small, silly. Good enough doesn’t apply to things like hearts and soul work? Or can it? Or is it a matter of degree? That somedays, it all just needs to be good enough, but in our next breath there is a potential for expansion? Or it it just a matter of staying awake? Being able to be content with whatever life throws at us, all the while staying awake to whatever potential and possibility may unfold. I don’t know that I will know the answers. I don’t know that I will ever figure out it out.
And maybe the fact that I am asking the question and seeking the answer is really in the end…Good enough.
Max and I went bowling tonight. It is one of our favorite things to do. In the space of the drive home, the sky turned from bright dusk to the most amazing shade of dark. The sky still lit up from a sun which had refused to set was transformed by smoke grey clouds. “Look Max,” I said, my voice quivering with excitement. “It is going to storm”. And then lightening in the distance turned the sky hot pink and fat rain drops fell.
We talked about hurricanes on the short ride home. Max had heard about the ones hitting Texas and Mexico and was worried. Did we ever get hurricanes here? What happens in hurricanes? Why are they dangerous? What is the difference between a hurricane and a thunder storm? I told him the story of the hurricane that hit our area when he was just a toddler. It was not a fierce hurricane and we were far enough inland that we faced a weakened beast but it was still scary nevertheless. I told him how we lost power for a week and how trees were uprooted and how the park looked completely different and we had to find new ways to get into town while everything was rearranged.
The sound of rain can always give me pause, hold me still. Rain, when it comes like this, strong and steady, with wind and thunder, feels magical to me. I listen for the subtle differences in how the rain sounds, on my roof, on the trees, against the window. The thunder and lightening that announced this storm have passed but the rain continues, filling rain barrels, restoring gardens, washing away soot, dust, pollen, dislodging leaves and broken tree limbs and making it all clean and light.
Max huddled under the covers at bedtime tonight. “I am scared mama” he whispered over and over. I wrapped my arms around him and snuggled him tonight and promised him that while he was frightened, no harm would come to him. Storms can be terrifying but they are ultimately good. Storms can clean us out. Storms can make us new again. Storms can make messes and can radically change the landscape of our hearts but storms fill up the wells and give new hope to crops that looked long gone.
I recently had the chance to see an amazing documentary film that will be making its theatrical debut this September. Trouble the Water is a stunning piece of art that not only captured the horror of Hurricane Katrina, the raw injustice that exists in our country and the tragedy caused by the incompetence of the US government but also documented the miraculous transformation of two individuals. It was simultaneously a story of great despair and great hope, of death and rebirth, of facing horrible horrible pain and finding that not only survival but that life blossoms in surprising and amazing ways in the aftermath and that we keep coming back.
This is a theme I keep coming back to, over and over again. Whenever I go through a period like this I have trouble naming my experience, putting it into words. I always have trouble until the rains come and then I know, “aha…yes of course.” The drama of the thunder and lightening have passed, the rain is still falling, softer but steady. I can feel my the landscape of my life transformed. Still the same town, still the same space. But the dead limbs and old trees have been removed. I can feel more light streaming in. I can feel the dust swept away.
I am washed clean of the clutter and am left only with myself. New as I have always been. Transformed into myself again.
May the rains falls soft upon your fields tonight.
I don’t often write about my job here on this blog.
Its very important to me, my paid work, but it’s not the kind of thing I talk about here.
I don’t blog about politics or income inequality or the financial markets even though I think about these things all day long. When I decided that I wanted to blog, I very consciously decided that I would keep my “professional life” and my “writing life” separate.
But every now and again those boundaries start to blur. After all it really is just one life. And its mine.
When I count my blessings, when I sit in gratitude, when I think about the abundance in my life, I am thankful for my work.
For starters, I get to spend my days fighting for justice for working people. I get to join my skills with the skills, courage and smarts of nurses, janitors, security officers and public employees as we work together to build a better life for our kids. I feel passionate about my work. But the blessings don’t stop there. I adore my colleagues–they are some of the smartest people on the planet. They are also some of the kindest and most loving folks too and I cherish the fact that when I walk into the office, I get to spend the day sharing ideas, dreaming up schemes and being creative with them. My mentor and boss is the cream of the crop–He pushes me to be my best self. Over the years he has become a brother and dear friend. Really. My work situation is ideal.
But really…one of the best things about my job…is that once in awhile I get to do something like this.
I still can’t believe they actually pay me…Will someone pinch me please…
I haven’t been writing much.It seems that there is a shift going on in my life and I am not quite sure what to make of it.
It feels rather big and quite small at the same time.
After all, nothing has changed and yet everything seems to be changing.
My life feels so very much the same, but I feel new. And yet I feel as though I am really who I always was. And recognizing myself from long ago and realizing I had been there all along.
I don’t know how to write about it. And yet I don’t know how to write about anything else.
So I do my laundry. And I make dinner. And I play Uno with Max and read books. And I go through stacks of paper and finally take care of a thousand things that just last month seemed not worth doing.
Many of the events that are precipitating all these shifts are not the stuff of publication. Some are quite small, like streams that gently shape a mountain side over time. They are so mundane. Others have been earthquakes, shaking my very sense of security. They leave me feeling vulnerable and exposed.
Sometimes I feel like I am on the edge of some big deep breakthrough, but really, truth be told, most minutes I feel like I am wandering around in the spiritual desert, arriving at the same lesson over and over again. I feel like the last month or so has been a kind of spiritual boot camp.
Over and over, in big and small ways, I keep being called on to trust. To shed fear. To open up to love at whatever the cost. To operate not from a place of hurt but from compassion. To hold it all lightly, even when it feels so heavy. To claim my power and then to be unimpressed with it and let it go. To establish boundaries but let love flow freely across them.
To stop asking “what next?” To stop asking “why?” To stop seeking and spinning and hoping and wondering.
And just be.
As a storyteller I don’t know what to do with the silence. The long stretches of quiet. Except to honor the stillness and to know that some stories are meant only to be whispered to God. And that soon, other stories will come to me. To let the fields go fallow for awhile and trust that I will write when I am ready.
This past Sunday, Odette threw a dinner party at our house. She called together some of the dearest members of our tribe to thank them for planning a fundraiser to support her girls. We pulled out dresses and dusted off the china, put a white damask cloth on the table and filled the house with flowers. As everyone started to arrive it started to pour…a heavy summer rain, the kind that washes funks and bad moods away. We drank beer and wine and gathered in the kitchen, all of us crowded in that tiny space leaving the rest of the house empty. As the lights flickered and the power threatened to go off, I pulled out candles and placed them next to the good dishes and half- hoped for the intimacy that an outage would bring.
And then Odette called us around the table. We stood there all of us, adults and children. We held hands as Odette bowed her head and began to say a blessing in her mysterious and beautiful language, a blessing over the food we would eat, a blessing over strangers who had become family. I opened my eyes and looked around the circle. And I took a mental picture and burned it into my heart. A circle of community. A table loaded with food. An endless cycle of giving and receiving.
And I knew that for all the shifts and changes and silences and spiritual deserts and breakthroughs, I have all that I will ever need. And no matter where I explore, I will arrive back here. Home.
During my very first guitar lesson almost a year ago I learned three chords–C, G and F.
It was then that I learned that “F” would be my nemesis.
Its been over nine months and despite hours of practice and calloused Fingers, I still can’t get that damned “F” chord to sound pretty. Its Frustrating, inFuriating even. When I tell my guitar playing Friends how I struggle with “F” they look at my as though I am a Freak…”Really?” they say. “Really? Hmmm…and how long have you been playing?” Yeah…that “F” chord makes me Feel like a Failure, blocked, stuck.
My teacher keeps telling me that I just need to practice. To keep trying, now matter how Futile my efforts may seem. He counsels that one day it will all Fall into place. I am Frankly not sure though if at this point even he buys it or if he is simply trying to keep me going, prevent me from quitting in order to ensure that the Forty dollars I pay him every week continues Flowing his way.
The fact I am Flunking “F” sometimes Feels too big. To be honest, when I take out my guitar, sometimes I skip over all the songs that have an “F” in them. Hearing the muffled, blocked sound over and over again sometimes reminds me too much of all the other ways I Fail, over and over again to get it right–the big and the small…Its dead tone speaks to me my Failed marriage and my inability to Focus at work. It taunts me with reminders of Forgotten birthdays and the Forty Seven things on the to-do list that didn’t get done again today.
But other times I play “F” over and over again, until my Fingers are raw and my hand is cramped and sore. I play F with the hopes that maybe if I can Finally Figure out that F*%!cking “F” chord then I can Figure out how to Fix the other stuck parts of my life too–the Finances that are a bit too shaky, the Friendship that Feels a bit too Fragile, the stupid Fights I have with my son over and over again about trying new Foods, or his Filthy room. In those Frenzied moments I almost believe that “F” holds all the secrets and that if I could crack the code of this chord that magic would Flow like a river into my life.
Sometimes, when I am diligently working I hear a clear sound and Feel elated only to realize I can’t duplicate it–success is Fleeting and dissolves too quickly.
Stupid Friggin’ “F” chord.
It can bring up all my worst Fears–like my Fear that I will never move Forward, that I will be stuck wandering around the desert trying to learn the simplest of lessons over and over again, not just in guitar but in life. “F” can make me question why I even started to try to tackle something so hard, why I bit off more than I can chew and leaves me Feeling Foolish. “F” can leave me Fed Up and Freaked out and just one step short of quitting.
And in those moments when “F” has me Flummoxed and Frazzled, a little voice starts to whisper to me.
“F” is for Faith.
“F” is for Fortitude
“F” is for Fearless and Freedom and Flying.
All the ways I try and Fail and try and Fail and keep trying is a practice, a practice that may take me in circles but ultimately may shake loose some of the Fears heal some of the Fractures in my heart. It may just give me what I need.
“F” is my teacher.
Recently I was found.
An old dear friend reached out to me from across the wide expanse of years. We were young and dumb together, he and I. We had had many adventures–real, crazy adventures and wild emotional ones too. But that was long ago and we haven’t talked in years. We had grown up, found love, formed homes, started families. Life got busy and we drifted apart.
During the years when we were close, our relationship had been an anchor. We passed long letters back and forth over sea and land. He was in the Navy, I was teaching in Texas. Those letters kept me afloat during two very difficult years when I was far away from home, far away from love, far away from even myself. He kept me grounded, kept me reading, kept me thinking, kept me breathing. We talked about everything. We often disagreed. But no matter how spirited the debate, he saw me, really saw me for who I was, and adored me for all my imperfections. He was the first person who loved me who didn’t minimize my flaws. That is powerful love.
One New Years Eve, over 15 years ago, in a city hundreds of miles from where either of us lived he found me, sought me out to slip his arms through mine. As I lay my head on his shoulder and told him secretes, I knew that I would love him forever, that he would always be dear to me. Always.
At one point in the height of being young and dumb we had a bitter falling out. I can’t remember now any of the details or the circumstances. But I do remember the sadness, the loneliness of realizing that something profound had shifted in my life, of feeling a veil had been lifted and that I was left with life, stripped bare. Without him. I ached intensely. I was angry for I was sure that I would love him always but this did not feel like love. We stopped talking for what felt like a lifetime. The silence was so loud.
After a while though, no matter how intensely I felt the loss of him, I found that I could sit with the memories of our friendship, sit with them without anger at his betrayal. I remembered all the ways he saw me, all the ways he knew me, cherished me, even if he couldn’t understand me, even if he no longer could appreciate me. And it became clear to me that no matter how big or intense the hurt, the love I had for him was big enough–big enough to hold it. Big enough to overshadow it. Big enough to balance it. Big enough to bless it. Big enough to let it be. Because I had been seen. He saw me.
By the time his letter of apology came in the mail, by the time he found me again there was nothing but love left in my heart.
Our relationship changed after that. It would change many times. Not for the worse or even for the better. It just was, as we were, growing up. There were hurts. There was laughter. One day I sat on a park bench with him in New Orleans. I was teasing him about some girl he was dating, some girl he would later marry but the edge in my voice betrayed me. I looked down at my shoes, maybe a little embarrassed. “I just want you to be happy” I said to him. “Do you?” he challenged me in the way that only he could. “Do you really? Or do you just want me to be yours?” I was, like I often was around him,dumb struck. I just kept looking at my shoes.
But later that night I sat in a rocking chair on my friends porch in the Garden District rocking myself and looking up at the big old moon. “Happy” I whispered to the warm Louisiana wind. “Happy”. I sent my wish out for him. And for the first time I took into my heart the reality that love does not mean attachment and love often means walking away, setting boundaries, saying goodbye.
Of course it wasn’t really goodbye. Because love kept bringing us back in different ways. There were a few Sunday mornings when as I lay in bed with Juan, watching the political talks shows the phone would ring. He was watching too. Or he had news. About a clerkship. About a girl. About a death. He came to my wedding, driving through the rain from Manhattan. As he stood there with the woman who would be his wife he looked at me, and I looked at him and we both smiled–for he saw me, he saw me exactly for what I was. Happy. Messy, imperfect but happy. And it brought him joy.
But life is a busy thing. Careers, children, houses that are too big, budgets that are too small. We no longer had time for penning long letters. Sunday mornings were full of chores, and work. There is a Christmas card, maybe two and then silence. But this time the silence came so gradually I didn’t even hear it. Its been at least 5 years since our last communication–It was around the birth of his son. I sent a congratulations. He sent a thank you note. And then it was quiet.
But he found me.
Truth is he always does.
And he found me at the perfect time.
At a time when I needed to remember that love, true fearless love, is big enough to hold any hurt, any betrayal. That in the end love is always bigger. That forgiveness is but an affirmation that love is more important, mightier, stronger. He walked back into my life exactly at a time when I needed to remember that fearless love changes, morphs and may appear to retreat but never really dies. That love is not equal to attachment but that love always finds you when you need it most.
He is coming this way, my dear old friend. Passing through town this month. And he says he wants to see me. He always did see me. And when he does I will slip my arms round his waist and lay my head on his shoulder for a moment and see him too.
I am sitting in a place of radical trust right now. I am walking down a dark street and knowing I am safe. I am following a path that is lit only one or two steps ahead of me but of knowing that where it takes me is where I need to be. I am tumbling down a rabbit hole, no choice but to trust that I will land in a soft place.
The world has turned upside down and I am falling. Or am I flying? Is there any difference?
I am here in a field, this poem by TS Eliot the bed on which I lay my head. Each word a blade of soft grassy green:
A condition of complete simplicity/ (Costing not less than everything)/And all shall be well and/All manner of things shall be well…
It is what holds me. This meadow.
Is it a meadow or is it a magic carpet lifting me up, holding me above all the possibilities that could be right now. But aren’t.
I close my eyes and feel the power of this radical trust run through my veins. I feel all the places in my heart where I have been closed up and where the trust is bumping up against blockages. I know the only way to survive will be to finally allow them to break. To open, to do nothing but open.
To succumb to radical trust and know that my life will never be the same again.
This is a journey of not knowing and choosing to trust, to love any way. This is the way home to myself.