This I Believe

One day, the ground opened up and swallowed me.
Or maybe I took the road of good intentions.
Either way, I found myself in hell.
They’ve redecorated.
Tidy concentric rings have given way to total patternless disorder. There is no plan, no purpose, no meaning. Eve’s snake is here, coiled in the knowledge of good and evil, but I’ve eaten those apples and seen people chewing different fruit from the same branch fly planes into buildings secure in the knowledge they’ve ingested.
I can’t stomach good and evil anymore, but hell is prowled by ravenous questions and every bone I could throw these beasts crumbles, made of nothing more substantial than belief.
Hell isn’t even other people anymore, but my pathetic inability to connect with them in a meaningful way. But there is an exit, and I make my first move towards it with the fairytale trick of learning the monster’s name. The pain he inflicts teaches it to me.
If you’re being annihilated, something within you must exist to be destroyed. So I discover, at the cruel boundary of nothingness, the answer to his question. If entropy (and I can feel it) exists and deconstructs, then there must be a force that builds, or everything would be nothing already.
“Chaos and Order exist” I tell him “And I choose Order over you, you nasty devouring worm.”
After Chaos, the next monster in my path is God, and “sore afraid” doesn’t begin to cover it. I lash myself to the mast against the song of everything I want most—a deep and divine love for me personally, a god with a plan, a destiny to discover, a meaning to fulfill. But there’s no singer, only everything there is- and it’s telling a story.
It’s a story that orders and creates, that opposes entropy, that begets duality, and I want to join in, to lend my voice to the telling, to order and create. We are all the stories told by Story itself, and told in its image, we too can spin a yarn- a sophisticated post-modern one or a simple quest story
with monsters and blunt symbolism.
Belief is always a choice. I believe in stories.
I believe in stories that illustrate who we are, that share vulnerability and build shared history.
I believe in unknown stories that play themselves out through me until I catch on and stop, or edit them.
I believe in Story’s power to create reality, to transfer information across generations, to transform pain into meaning, to unify a nation- or divide one.
I believe each life is an equally valuable story told, through which Story- or God,lives out itself in sacred exposition, even when I can’t understand the narrative or decode the symbolism. I have seen brutal stories trumped by the stories people have chosen in response. I believe we can narrate our way out of hell.
The weenies had the nerve, after all work writing the essay, on the submission page, to ask for 600-800 words on the writing process. Here’s mine:

When your homemade belief system can be reduced to “I believe in stories,” you feel a certain obligation to tell what you believe in the form of a story. Ultimately, I wrote the story of the very personal journey I undertook when staying home with my infant son gave me both regular contact with the primal chaos, and time to experience and confront it within myself.

This project challenged me to return along a difficult path, to tell my own story, to re-examine the demons, and to force into at least grudging submission the story of what in the (quite literal) hell I’m doing here. The complete answer was 1564 words too long. There were unwieldy ideas to negotiate around practical corners and a wacky Frankenstein of fantasy, faith and philosophy to pretty up and teach to speak.

I wanted to conclude my story with the happy ending of never having returned to the dark place it describes, but that would have made my story a fiction. Writing is the only way I know to extricate myself from hell, so I return here, to the unstructured uncreated, where materials are truly raw, in order to write new exits– new stories, new understanding, and now, a radio essay.

With every visit, meaninglessness and powerlessness feed on me less (although a devilish invisibility can cling to me even in my stay-at-home mom’s world of checkout lines and soccer games where I swear people look right through me), but every trip in leaves a new exit. Having abandoned all hope and lost all faith, I discover my freedom to create hope and to choose faith.

I can’t tell if this new creation will be useful or even interesting to NPR listeners, but it was helpful for me to write, so thank you for that. Thank you too for the project, the results of which I’m excited to listen to and learn from. But most importantly, thank you for putting the question out there. Sometimes the most powerful thing about a question isn’t its answer.

Sing!

My daughter goes to a school where everybody sings. It’s part of the curriculum and the children, even the middle school boys, are remarkably unselfconscious about it. In High School, choir becomes an elective. There is some attrition. Last night, grades four through eight performed. I watched them, their mouths forming perfect O’s through the long “oh!” of Alouette. They are completely innocent.

I am not.

Innocence, like virginity, is not lost. Lost things can be found. Innocence is slain or sacrificed, stolen or bestowed. And in the place of slain Innocence stands Knowledge- knowledge of evil, of failure, of death. But, from the corpus atop which Knowing stakes his claim, rises Hope wrapping ghostly arms around him. And although you can strengthen Knowing, brutalize Hope, she is Innocence Dead and cannot be killed again. Stronger than the living was, she survives and cradles Knowing in cool, smoky arms. And he, the proud warrior, strides away from lifeless Innocence, brushing the clinging shroud of Hope from his shoulders only to find her twined about his legs.

A friend of mine recently correlated innocence with dreaming, with the ability to believe in, or even have, dreams. I am no innocent. But I have a dream that may just be coming true, and I don’t want to brag and I sure don’t want to jinx it, but I’m feeling really good these days. I feel powerful and centered. I feel hopeful. It’s a dangerous place to be.

When Knowing hesitates, Hope transcends, and binding him, becomes almost Innocence again, believes in things again, radiates and plunges into the sea she tried to cross barefoot. She is a ghost, after all, and has a very weak grip on reality. Knowing and Hoping have been locked in mortal tango in me since I was a few years older than my daughter is now. Hope growing corporeal, beginning to make choices for me, leading me happy, wanting, down sweet paths to deep sewers. Knowledge mucking it out, rippling forearms breaking faith and dreams to feed his horse Responsibility.

It’s not such a bad horse. I rode it here.

A full two years ago, I came up with an idea for a business, for a thing I wanted to make. I worked for a while on one part of it, but it cost too much since I’m trying to source everything through fair trade organizations. So I switched to candles: Petroleum-, Lead- and Dogma-Free Prayer Candles. They’re done now. There’re six: Heal, Hope, Peace, Praise, Grieve and Thrive. Thing is, they’ve been really well received. In fact my dad, (whose view of reality is remarkably unclouded by phantom Hopes) offered to pay for a meeting with a patent attorney to determine if there was anything worth patenting. Which, it appears, there is.

And Hope takes the upper hand, rolling over the soldier’s torso, smoothing his ache and whispering in his ear.

I am not innocent. But I am not afraid. Perhaps Hope has me too wound within her narcotic embrace, although I can still hear the warrior speak. I know I can fail. I know desire and hard work are not always enough, and that like new marriages, half of new businesses fail. I won’t let blind Hope drive this time. I ride a plodding horse. But Hope sings to grim-mouthed Knowing and this is Optimism, who meets possible calamity with “I know it can, but hope it won’t,” who teaches Knowing a partner’s gentle grip on Hope’s lithe waist, and so I hum along, bending notes between Hope and Knowing, searching for the perfect pitch.

Come on, sing the optimism tango. It has no long “oh!”s

Cosmology

In the beginning,
it was as with
a child.
She was,
but did not know that she was.

And yet, she was all that there was
and had ever been.
And all that there was not
and would never be.

And in her being, she
creates all things,
building block on block.
Growing order.
Making each new thing
Separate and fitted perfectly.
Intricate, individual.
Elegant and ordered.

And in her being, she
pulls all things apart,
returns them to herself
To formlessness,
Chaotic, destructive, decaying.
Unintelligible, a patternless reunion
Consumed, obliterated,
Scattered on random winds.

Making and unmaking
Being and not knowing
All that is.
All that is not.

And we are her children.
Made of, pinched off from, flowed through.
We feed on her with twin teeth– love and fear
Separate from her, and from our siblings
We- we who believe that we are,
Can neither create nor merge

But we carry her.
We, in moments, timeless
This is why we are.

For although she is
(and is all that is and is not)
It is only through us,
In those moments
when we are and do not know that we are
That she knows she is.

We, her children, birth her into her own creation.
And she is, and knows she is.
And we are all that is, and all that is not.
And are gone again.

Duck, Berries, and the Swim

Once, a duck lived beside a small island in a stream. The island was one of many grassy mounds that rose from the clear water to support the life of a single berry bush. The duck floated in its shade and ate its berries.

One day, the duck stretched out her bill for a berry and could not find one. The bush had been plucked bare. The duck muttered and complained, stuck her head under her wing and went to sleep. Hunger woke her later and yet there were still no berries on her bush. She grew angry, and then afraid. For days she huddled against the cruel island bank, or swam its barren perimeter, hungry and afraid, powerless to affect the berry bush, hopeless without food.

As the sun rose one morning the duck raised weary eyes to the horizon. She knew that her situation was becoming dire. All her life she’d looked to this bush for sustenance and for over a week now she’d continued to do so despite finding none. The bush was dead and she knew that she must change or die. She looked wildly around, and her eye caught something berry-colored near the stream’s opposite shore. She had never notice the other islands before. Now she fixed her eyes upon it longingly. The island was far from her own, but clearly supported a full and fecund crop of fruit.

She had never swum so far, but hunger drove her and she plunged into the current as it swept past the only home she had ever known. Swimming across the stream was a very different kind of swimming, harder, more demanding, than her gentle island circling, but she never took her eyes off the berries of the distant island and struggled bravely on. Her legs, forced to paddle for longer than they ever had, ached as they pushed against the current. Keenly aware of her feathers and foot webbing for the first time, but surprised at her own strength, she felt, for a moment, buoyed by the water she beat back. Triumphant, finally, she reached the bank and rested in the shade of the luscious new berry bush. She dined upon its ripest fruit. Never had she sampled berries so sweet. Allowed to ripen so long, uneaten except by birds, the bounty overwhelmed her and she gave herself to the enveloping sleep of the physically exhausted.

For several days, the duck gloried not only in the wonderful fruit of her new island, but also in the power of her crossing. She had set her eyes upon these berries and bravely swum to reach them. She was proud and strong- a good, brave duck with powerful feet and streamline feathers. She could cross the stream. And so, when several days later the ripest and largest of the berries consumed, the duck became dissatisfied. The remaining berries were small and hard, and while she had eaten only such berries for most of her life, she was now a duck who could cross streams, and did not see why she should suffer green berries again. She scanned the river once more and saw another, unknown island ahead. It would have berries that could satisfy such a duck! And so again, with less sorrow and fear, the duck launched into the stream.

As she swam she once more knew fatigue, but this time she also knew she could conquer it. She had doubts, but knew herself to be brave. She once again felt the swell and flow of the river, knew herself a good swimmer and longed for fresh berries. Once again she crossed the river. Once again she dined on dark, full fruit although its sweetness was not surprising any more.

From bank to bank the duck swam, resting shorter and shorter times at every island. She became accustomed only to the freshest fruit, rejecting closer, smaller islands in favor of more dangerous crossings to larger bushes. She began to know that no bush would ever surprise her the way the first bush had. She began to fear that endless swimming in search of better berries would yield nothing but weary legs and torn foot webbings. As long as she swam from bush to bush she had berries to eat, but she no longer fully believed that reaching the next bush would satisfy her hunger. She began to long for the days of contented bobbing under one bush, resting in its shade, eating its berries. But even if she could content herself with unripe berries, the bush would eventually die and besides, she was a very good swimmer.

As she sat one day, wondering whether it was worthwhile to plunge again into the stream towards a distant berry bush, a bird landed for a few fresh berries from the upper branches of the bush and startled the duck.

“What perfect berries!” exclaimed the bird
“Yes, they’re nice, aren’t they?” the duck replied. “I swam here, all the way from that island back there to taste them. It was really a difficult swim,” she added after a moment because the bird did not seem impressed “I had doubts that I would make it”
“You must be a very good swimmer,” the bird said. “I can’t swim at all.”
“Well,” said the duck modestly “I’ve had to be. It’s not easy, but when I was young, my berry bush died. I had to learn to swim. Just to survive.”
“Wow” said the bird.
“I started,” and the duck gestured with her wing “all the way back there. Beyond that bend, you can’t even see my berry bush from here.”
“You must be very proud of how far you’ve swum.” said the bird. “Have you had a lot of wonderful berries?”

The duck, who’d really be enjoying the conversation so far, now felt that now the bird was missing the point. The berries had been what initiated the first swim, certainly. Fresher, better berries were the purpose for each successive swim of course, but they really weren’t the point. Because but she didn’t want to seem ungrateful she agreed “Oh yes, some wonderful berries, but let me tell you about one crossing I made. I’d seen some berries that looked particularly large and dark but they were almost directly across the river from me. I would have to swim the entire width against the current” and the duck began a lengthy description of the harrowing crossing which wound up with a particularly clever line about the irony of the berries, when she finally reached them, having fermented. She was sick for two days, badly delaying her next river crossing.

The bird listened raptly to the Most Perilous Crossing but missed the irony, which disappointed the duck. She did however comment on the strength and skill required by such a swim, and then, wishing the duck only the ripest berries and sweetest fruit flew away. The duck basked in bird’s admiration and looked forward to meeting other birds.

Chasing the perfect berry from one island to the next across the river had lost its appeal. She knew the chase for the pretense it was. There was no perfect berry, no berry bush in whose generous shade she could float content forever. Now only the admiration of birds determined her next destination. She spoke to one bird who was impressed with deep water crossings and swam the next day to an island in the center of the deepest channel, but the bird who perched there was interested in swift water navigation. The duck struck off over rapids accordingly. She was badly bruised, thinking, even as her body bounced off rocks, what a terrific story it would be.

She paddled wearily towards a bird-frequented island refining and practicing her tale, but by the time she reached the sheltering berry bush, the birds had taken to the air, and she nibbled berries, disconsolate.

She watched the birds swooping and reeling overhead with mingled admiration and resentment. She needed them. Needed them like she needed berries to eat, but now they would not alight and she could not fly up to them to tell her story on the wing. “I can no more make those birds land than I could make my berry bush bloom,” she thought. And she began to cry.

She almost smiled at the irony when a bird, drawn by the peculiar sound of a sobbing duck, landed to ask what was wrong. It occurred to her to blame her tears on her near-fatal whitewater trip thereby capturing the duck’s attention and segueing nicely into her anticipated story, but found all she could muster was the simple truth “I wish I could fly.”

Purchasing the right to tell her own stories with the time she spent pretending to listen to theirs, the duck had only half-heard bird stories but even so, their universal and complete love of flying came through. She had long marveled at the speed with which they followed the river’s path towards open water as she toiled from island to island, envied the effortlessness with which they covered miles of winding river whose mouth she knew she would never see.
“I could try and teach you,” offered the bird.
“No” said the duck “I’m not a flying animal. I have wings, but ducks are simply not meant to fly. I’ve tried a little, and I can do it over short distances, but it’s exhausting and I hate it.”
“I can’t imagine hating to fly,” said the bird. “It’s the most magical feeling, to soar, to catch a current of air and glide free with no effort. To dive, your wings tucked in hard against your body, every ounce of you concentrated, alert, hurtling towards earth to die or break, with tremendous force, against the gathered weight of your falling, and, at the last moment, pull level and coast again, riding the exhaustion. It’s so hard, so demanding, so beautifully exacting. You loose yourself in it completely. You’re pure and streamline and nothing is extraneous or wasted. It’s why you are a bird- to fly like that.”
“Well it’s not like that for me.” Said the duck morosely. “Swimming can be, a little, at times. It’s that same sort of effort, that hard work that requires everything you are.”
“Isn’t it glorious?” smiled the bird dreamily.
“It’s very hard work.”
“Ummm” replied the bird who was clearly, to the duck’s supreme annoyance clearly no longer paying attention but off dreaming about flying again.
“I’m a very good swimmer” began the duck, about to explain not only how far she’d swum, but also how difficult and dangerous it had been, but the bird had opened one eye and was looking critically at the duck.
“But it’s fun, right? I mean you love to swim, don’t you?” he asked.
“I love to reach new islands,” said the duck, realizing as she did so that it was not entirely true “and swimming is how I get there.”
“But sometimes you swim just for fun, right?”
“No. I don’t swim for fun.” Huffed the duck. Imagine such a waste of energy and time, paddling about without getting anywhere. Swim for fun indeed!
“You should really learn to fly.” The bird looked mournfully at the duck.
“I don’t want to learn to fly! I am a swimming bird. That’s what I do. I swim. I swim from island to island on a quest for the freshest, largest, ripest berries. I swim because I’m a very good swimmer.”
“You like swimming?”
“Yes. I like swimming.”
“And when you swim, do you think about the swimming or the berries?”
“Mostly the berries, unless the swim is very difficult and requires all my concentration. Then I think about the water currents and the wind and sometimes I almost forget about the island. I almost loose myself in the swimming.”
“Feels good, doesn’t it?”
“Yes”
“So what would happen if you headed off for that island over there,” the bird pointed a graceful wing several islands ahead and across the stream “and mostly thought about the river instead of the island?”

The duck confessed that she didn’t know what would happen and so she and the bird decided to find out. The duck glanced at the island and launched herself into the stream. She had some trouble at first. Her mind kept refocusing on the island, wondering about its berries. She found she couldn’t properly set course without reference to the island, but gradually, she was able to feel her strong feet pushing through the water, feel the stroke of the stream as it brushed her feathers. She felt the current itself under and around her, felt, for a moment, buoyed, held glorious, weightless, in perfect harmony with water and wind. She was swimming.

As she neared the destination island she realized she’d come off course. It was coming parallel with her and she turned hard across the current and paddled desperately towards it, the stream had carried- was carrying her right past her goal and she would not reach it. It would be lost to her forever. She would never know its fruit. Madly she swam, legs burning, thinking, feeling only the terror and ferocity of the swim against the stream.
“Let it go” called the bird from over head. But she barely heard.
“Look ahead!” he screeched to the flailing duck and vanished. The duck remembered a bend in the river whose dangers she’d neglected to remain on guard against in her frantic backswim. A fatal error, and she closed her eyes a moment before looking, knowing this was the stupid end for a foolish duck- swept over avoidable rapids because she had failed to look ahead. She gave up trying to reach the island, aligned herself to confront whatever the bend concealed, and crested the corner prepared.

The bird sat atop an overflowing berry bush on the greenest island the duck had ever seen. Trembling, she paddled up.
“I didn’t reach my island,” said the duck.
“This one is nicer,” said the bird. “Have a berry.”

The duck never forgot the big island behind the bend, but she never forgot to stay alert again either. She learned to choose her goal islands with care, but to trust the river too. She still loved to talk with birds, to tell her stories of swimming and hear theirs of flying, each of them following the river in their own way. Sometimes she set out for an island only to achieve it and find its fruit spoiled. Sometimes the river swept her right past a lovely bush whose fruit she’d truly longed to sample. Sometime the current died away to almost nothing and a simple crossing exhausted her. But always she knew that there would be enough berries to feed her, enough water to support her and even if she never reached the ocean, she knew that the swimming was good.

This Is A Test

I’m taking a test in a large classroom full of tables large enough to accommodate two chairs side by side for a co-writing assignment. I’ve been assigned a desk with an attractive blond who writes in pen on only the left hand pages of our shared notebook, dating each one sequentially. I know the cover of the comp book has been pre-printed “The Life of Skye,” and that the blond is Life and that I am Skye.

Life has a pen with a pencil eraser, and she’s rapidly filling up left-hand pages, leaving the right side of the book blank. She writes only facts.

I have a pencil with no eraser. I can’t change anything Life writes, although I can annotate even very early pages on the right-hand side, and in fact have done so extensively during the time I was in therapy.

But I can’t flip forward in my comp book- even to see how many pages are left.

I can, however, write notes on how I’d like our co-writing assignment to develop, because I’m not sure my partner has a plan at all. I can write an outline and prop it up in plain view, so that Life, if she’s not feeling particularly creative on her own, can just go ahead and write from my plan.

Of course, sometimes she won’t. Sometimes she’ll write things I really, really don’t want in my book. And I don’t have an eraser. I can write mitigating or marginalizing commentary on my side of the page, but she’s free to reach over and erase wide swaths leaving ugly, smeary, empty pages.

I can read back and scan for patterns and confer with other writers in the room. I can ask about patterns in their own writing and even ask those closest to me to check their notes for those places where they’ve written about me. I can establish new patterns in our story by simply writing the same thing each day going forward.

I can take good notes about the patterns that I see, (or that my fellow students point out in my narrative) and make sticky notes for myself on how to respond differently. Because while Life may write the same patterns over and over, I can change what I write in response, on my half of the notebook, and that can disrupt her enough that she has to focus a little on what’s she writing. I suspect she’s a bit of ditz sometimes.

I can chose to write something different and while she can erase what I write, she can’t write anything else for me. Only I can fill in the right-hand page.

One day, I’m going to run out of pages. I don’t expect that day to come soon, because I know that most comp books come with a little fewer than twice the number of pages I’ve already written, but I know it’s possible that I could turn the page on today and find no tomorrow.

Then it will be time to turn in my work. I will carry my book to the front of the class and the master will glance up from the desk and say;
“Is it finished then?”
“Yes”
“Any questions?”
“Well, yes, actually. Lots. But I guess they all really boil down to: what did it all mean?”
“It was a test. It’s meant to be taken.”
“I did”
“Well. There you are then.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s very simple, really. The meaning of the test was for you to take it. Why were you here- in this class room?”
“To take the test?”
“Right! And why did you take the test?”
“Different reasons at different times. At first, I was writing just because the book was open in front of me, and it seemed like the only thing to do. Later, it was to try and figure out what had already been written and learn the rules of it. Finally, it was to write a good test. To turn in something that you’d enjoy reading, that moved our class forward, that hangs together coherently, that was fun to write.”
“So, how’d you do?”
“I wasted some time arguing with my desk mate, trying futilly to make Life change her story, but that for the most part, I think I did pretty well. I’m mentioned in several other people’s workbooks and quite a few extraordinary characters appear in mine. I tried to boost the overall tenor of the class and to help my classmates out when I could.” And the master will hand me both the red pencil and the grade record sheet. And I’ll record my grade, turn in my booklet and that will be the end.

Just Enough

I left a job as creative director when I was pregnant with Egan. It was the right decision, and while I’ve missed aspects of work, Egan and I, and in fact Scott and Kaki have all really benefited from my being home. All the same, for the past two years, I’ve been trying to leverage some of my time home to prepare for work when Egan starts kindergarten. The first plan was to have the Magics busy enough to need me managing them with the additional time (and for the additional income) when Egan started school. By the time it became apparent that that scenario wasn’t going to play out, I had a contract on the books with a publicity plan that had me working on book promotion in September if not well before. Now that plan was shot too, and with my exciting trip behind me, I felt like a failure on the professional front with little exciting to look forward to, and while I was still going through the motions, I felt flat and pathetic inside.

I’m going to give you my version of the ideas put forth in the book, because as I ran threm through my own weird filters and paradigms, I found them interesting and useful. If you want an non Sky-ized version, it’s called Just Enough by Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson.

Their thesis is that we all need to four different kind of satisfactions- they call them happiness, achievement, significance and legacy. Specifically, that we need at least some of all four kinds on a fairly frequent basis, and that rather than concentrating exclusively on developing the sort of skills that make us successful in business and trying to bring those skills to bear in our recreation and interpersonal relationships, that what we need to do is recognize the sense of “just enough” fulfillment in each quadrant and move, daily or even hourly through these incommiserate satisfactions.

With apologies to my engineer friend who’s cautioned me off the lure of any two-by-two graphing of anything, I found it useful, because it’s allowed some light on what exactly I’ve been feeling like I’m missing. I have very little to show for the last 5 years in the public success arena that they’re calling “achievement” but that I think of as “glory” in the ancient Greek usage of the word meaning “recognition with praise” They talk about it as something done in competition with or against others, a sense of mastery, of being accomplished or good at something to the extent that you’re better than the average monkey doing it.  It’s where we get our public power, we win, we’re successful, we make money. And this was really useful for me because yes, I’ve accomplished things during this time. I’ve raised children, and kept the house clean, I’ve written quite a lot and started not one, but two business ventures. But none of these things have made much money, and while I know that’s not the only measure of success, none of them have succeeded in any competitive, public, recognition-earning way.

It was really useful to me to see myself as falling short in that one area, and understanding my less-than-complete happiness as being not unhappy, but simply missing satisfaction in this one area. Very liberating. I like being able to interrogate feelings of dissatisfaction against this metric, and in fact, I’ve made some additional early notes on what my ideal version of fulfillment would be in each quadrant and what implications I’ve noticed of not getting enough in each area. When I haven’t been working enough in the upper left quadrant- the transcendence area- for example, I feel hungry and needy, addictive, insatiable. As though I’m trying to fill up my Happiness quota with candy.   Failures in the Impact area, on the opposite diagonal have left me, at their worst, feeling stuck in a rut, useless, afraid of death, afraid of change, and not sure that I actually matter. I haven’t had much of this recently. Something about raising children makes you less likely to question your impact. I know I echo.

Mostly, though, I think I need to give some strong thought to creating real goals for the upper right area- warrior goals, goals about winning. And just writing that stirs up in me deeply ingrained twinges of “ladies don’t fight to win” and other resistances that I didn’t know I had to the ideas of competition and achievement. I think it will be good for me to take the risks involved in actually competing.  Yes, I can be happy even if I don’t achieve my goals in this area, but I think it will really stretch me to try, and I expect the trying itself will be educational and energizing. It’s also helped me shake a nagging sense of loserness. I’m not pathetic, I’m well accomplished in pleasure and service and legacy. In fact I’m very happy in those quadrants more days than not, so happiness is still very available to me, even right now. It’s just not a complete happiness yet.

I drew this up, it overlays their quadrants with one of Ken Wilber’s and one of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s with a little of the Michael teachings sprinkled in for good measure.

geeky_chart

Grief

I am forever rewriting a statement of belief. If I ever get it finished enough- it’ll never be really complete- I’ll put it here. In it, I say I believe that joy, (not happiness and not pleasure) signal the correct path towards growth- that pain and chaos are always a signal that we are in the wrong place, attending to the wrong things, at war with what actually exists, etc. But I’m starting to wonder if that’s the case. Perhaps there is disintegration, alienation, and meaninglessness that simply is. And we feel its pain. And that’s all.

I’m uncertain though. I believe in the role of suffering to educate. I believe in the underworld as the painful chaos of creation, but I can see no growth coming out of Beslan. The children who sat out terror for hours to die away from their mothers alone aren’t going to increase integration or become more fully realized versions of themselves. Nor does everything that fails to kill me strengthen me. Some things just leave you scarred, damaged or broken.

I guess it comes down to one of my primary tenets: All Truth is a paradox. Pain exists for a purpose and pain exists for no reason at all. I am so used to reading pain as a call to action I marshal my litany of empowerment: from Frankle’s “last human freedom” to Gandhi’s “Satyagraha,” I have asserted my ability to pray, to visualize, to create, to integrate and individuate, to grow in response to pain. I have said I know the root causes of all pain and that they are powerlessness and meaninglessnes. And now. Now I wonder if some pain defies any creative growth. If, as we face the parents of Breslan, all we can do is take one more breath. And one more. This pain exists for no reason at all.

And what do you do in the face of reasonless, purposeless pain?
Do you do what you can?
Do you do nothing at all?
I lit a Grieve candle. It doesn’t seem like enough.
I keep searching the shadows, looking for meaning. I keep wondering “what is this trying to tell me? What is the message in the broken things, the beauty in the disordered elements?” and I think there is no meaning there. No warning, no clarion call. Nothing to avoid. No action to undertake. Sometimes suffering comes without the easy sidestep into anger, without the terrible dark goddess, the avenging angle, the protector of the innocent, the warrior for justice. Is she strong enough to only hold my hand?
Does she walk into the valley of the shadow of death, and just have a seat there?
Does she look at you and not blink? Can she hold your eye and love you in your agony?
Then so must I. Unblinking.

Polarity

But there’s a subtler dynamic in interpersonal, (particularly romantic or family) relationships that is similar to power hydraulics, but different in some ways. It’s a polarization effect, where people take on opposite ends of a role continuum. These are the “I’m the one who” polarities. I’m the one who runs the finances, I’m the one who has the feelings, I’m the one who does the house work, I’m the strong one, I’m the crazy one, I’m the responsible one. It’s so easy, but it’s so destructive because nobody is always strong or crazy or responsible, but you go there because it’s your role and your partner keeps you there and pretty soon, the only way you can see to get out of a role is to leave.

One of my best friends lost him marriage to this. He was older than she was and good with money. He balanced their checkbook at first and polarized into The Responsible One. She was forever running up the credit cards and he was always lecturing and worried. She finally left him because she thought it was the only way she could learn to be responsible. She felt like he’d never stop seeing her as impulsive and stupid. He felt like she’s always seem him as controlling and cheap. She wanted to manage money better but felt pushed into the spendthrift role. But she also liked pretty, expensive things. He wanted to be able to buy on impulse occasionally, but also liked feeling in charge and adult and responsible. They got so polarized that neither of them could stand the extremes, the charicatures they’d become but neither could move towards the center or allow the other one to.

My last relationship before Scott died on a polarity too. He was the crazy one. He had wild emotional swings, anger and jealously and it was my job to be the steady one. To hold him and reassure him, to protect him and heal him. I liked it because I felt important and the passion was intense. He liked it because it felt alive and real and he had some serious stuff he needed to heal and felt safe and loved enough to start working on it. But it polarized. And I could never have a bad day or a short fuse or pain, anger, grief or passion of my own. I always had to keep it together. And he, likewise, could never come into peace, calm, be intellectual or rational. At the end, he did crazy all the time and I did the Ice Queen. I’m a fairly intense and passionate person, left to my own devices, but our relationship had become so polarized that I felt nothing any longer. You find yourself saying, “This isn’t me” and wondering how you got there.

Early on, I would break up with a guy when I reached the full extension polarity and pick the next guy based on the pendulum pull back. If I’d been the smart one I’d pick a smart guy next time. If I’d been the naughty one, I’d pick a bad boy. Whatever my partner had polarized on, I’d go for the opposite pole. It didn’t take long to spot the pattern, and what I started to do was look for balance on the continuum that had broken up the last relationship. Ricki was the crazy one, so when I went looking for Scott, I wanted a man with whom I could hand the emotionality back and forth. We still do a pretty good job on that one, actually. Sometimes he’s the strong one, sometimes I’m weak. Sometimes he freaks out and I soothe. It’s nice.

We have other polarities though. I’m the neat freak and he’s the slob. Which is ironic, because I’m not, left on my own, that much of tidy type. Only he is less so and so we’ve polarized and now I’m the one who cleans and he doesn’t. At all. And yes, it makes me crazy. I’m the intellectual one and he won’t read anything I write, not even the erotica. And he was Ivy League when I started going out with him. But we’ve polarized. Now I’m the one that has ideas and he’s the one who makes things with his hands. A man’s man. Grrrrr. See me moon about.

Living with another person is a delicate balance of give and take, of compromise and accommodation, but I’m beginning to believe there are places where one should refuse to bend, refuse the push down the continuum, stand fast to the balance you have when you’re single and have to account for the full spectrum on your own. I’m trying to see what it is I get out of the polarities I inhabit, because I’m pretty sure it’s mutual thing that ends you up there.

The people I enjoy most are those who are able to maintain polarities within themselves, those who can be artistic and stable, smart and silly, kinky and responsible, daring and considerate. But it’s hard. And I think, when we fall in love, we’re all too happy to hand half a continuum off to our love. It binds us to them, is an intimate sharing, an act of love: “Here, you be smart and I’ll be silly.” Until we end up leaving him because he has no sense of humor and says you can never be serious about anything. And I’m not sure I know how to reclaim it. It sounds a lot like identity assassination when you ask your partner to be a more artistic type of person. And even it you’re not really wanting them to change who they are, you know they’ll resist if you start breaking the rules and acting all stable and business-like. That’s their role, after all. And maybe that’s the key, to begin reclaiming your competencies, edging into the middle space without asking him to leave. Could I have ever been the weak one with Ricki? Could I have had a meltdown and cried and not cared if he didn’t join me on the great role flip? If he had stayed in crazy himself and not picked up my place in stable, or would the teeter totter just have flipped over rather than snapping in the center as it did?

Peace Biology

When the war ends, you put your weapons and maille away. You live the quiet country life that you fought to defend. Now the borders are threatened again, and older now, you polish your shield. You will not race off on raids, draw the blue woad lines on your cheeks again, but you dress for battle in the still morning and walk the slow miles to counsel where you will be the elder statesman, the warrior queen returned to broker peace with full knowledge of what war is. I will, if I have to, fight again. But I will bring my battle-hard body to the table first. I will make what preparations are required but I will keep vigil every night and pray I will not need them.

I came of age in war and would not see my children ever have to know what I learned there. But there are things worth fighting for and I am willing to face chaos and fear once more for freedom. A country does not live in peace without effort. Peace is a bird in the air, not a stone on the earth.

Ours can never be the sweet and gentle harmony of drum and flute. I play bagpipes and he plays accordion. Our instruments are tuned in different keys, and they are neither much good at pianissimo. I will not agree to be silent so that we sound good together. But I will not pack up my pipes and go home just because discord makes my skin crawl.

I wrote a while ago about the whole product/process thing and it’s still haunting me. In fact, the way I’m writing here is my attempt to be in process rather than share the finished process of my thinking. My best friend was here for the last four days and she pointed out that I’m so process oriented that when I began to feel like the end result of my relationship with C was going to be divorce, it changed the way I related to everything. I need to do what’s right and let go of needing to know what will happen. I need to be willing for our relationship to end, and I need to be willing for it to work. I need to be willing to defend my right to an unsilenced self.

I wrote a while ago about integration and individuation. And I have a gift for integrating. I’ve got the shapeshifter’s gift- the creatrix able to pass as any creator, blend in any landscape, appear to fit into to any grouping, and yet not at home anywhere, vigilant against detection as the fraud only I know I am, always honing my illusion. The desire for love, the longing to belong, to fit in., to integrate. This desire to merge and unite in opposition with the desire to grow and individuate, be more myself and more than I am now, to expand, branch out, extend my reach.

See, it’s all process still. And it’s sort of a mess.

I had always believed that peace was the highest goal. And I still do. I’ve just qualified what I mean by peace. Because I could have peace in my home if I just let my husband have his way with everything. Negotiated peace, though, the peace of individuation AND integration, the complex organism peace- where each organ achieves its own growth and complex specialization and the individual growth contributes to the health and productivity of the organism. This is what I want and I do believe it’s worth fighting to defend. I don’t want to be a peaceful amoeba. I’d rater be an embattled frog.

36 Year Old Tree

I’m invisible.
I don’t go to work someplace where people see me.
Not so attractive anymore that I’d catch your eye.
Not so unattractive that I collect scornful glances.
At the grocery store I’m another woman in a line with a cart and a toddler.
If the checker looks up, she doesn’t see me.
On a good day, she’ll smile at my son.
My children see me through children’s eyes.
They see me for what they need, not who I am, and that’s as it should be.
My husband looks at me, looks to me, for sex, for clean socks, for a constant steady friend. He says being near me makes him feel peaceful, he says I’m the source of everything good in his life. He loves me deeply, but he’s simply not interested in the life of my mind. Something I’ve always known.
My best friend is married with a full-time job and a busy life half a country away.
It’s ironic, really, that this place is where I come to feel seen. Where no one sees my face and no one knows my name.
But I have felt seen here.
Maybe I shouldn’t need to feel seen, acknowledged, recognized.
Maybe the inner workings of a 36 year-old stay-at-home mom aren’t interesting.
I pay attention to my children, to my husband, to my friends and my house and my responsibilities. I pay attention to self-growth and continuing education.
I pay a lot.
I don’t make much.
I see quite a bit.
But nobody cares what I see.
Or how it looks to me
I keep up my end. I don’t make a mess. My life is intact. I don’t call attention to myself, don’t get in fights or run up the credit cards. I’m not sneaky. I don’t cheat or gossip.
No one looks at me and shakes their head.
No one frowns in disapproval or scowls in worry.
No one looks or frowns or scowls at all.
I’m Responsible.
Invisible.
If a woman lives and no one sees her, does she really fall?