I sit down to write tonight suffused by a sadness whose roots are too deep for me to comprehend. The words of poet Louise Gluck fade towards me: “…it is a bitter thing to be/ the disposable animal,/ a bitter thing.” And from the same poem: “…what/ surprises you most in what you feel,/ earth’s radiance or your own delight?/ For me, always/ the delight is the surprise.”
I notice in myself the inexorable pull to turn towards the light. This instinct is at the center of all the gifts I have inherited, and yet the moments of truly awful fear and sadness loom up, out of somewhere, and assume their place.
Since the hoop came into my life, I have enjoyed a kind of exponentiality in the blessings that have been showered upon me in this life. Within the hoop, I have discovered a deeper capacity to face who I am, what I am. To look square at myself and say, “Yes. In every human act, in every inescapable truth that stands behind each act, I see my own face.” Within the hoop, I have come closer to that precious completeness we are born with, and lose in pieces to judgment along the way.
I make a habit of observing my actions and (always trying for patience and compassion) accepting wherever I am at that moment. Certain moments are much, much harder than others.
Since throwing myself into the relentlessly self-selecting machine of competition for time, space, and audience that is New York, I have gone through cycle after cycle of self-doubt, self-loathing, “the hunger for obliteration/ that wakes us in the night at the dead hour.” (Ellen Bryant Voigt). Yes. That poem. “Blue Ridge”:
“…and I thought how the young
are truly boring, unvaried as they are
by the deep scar of doubt, the constant afterimage
of regret—no major tension in their bodies, no tender
hesitation, they don’t yet know
that this is so much work, scraping
from the self its multiple desires; don’t yet know
fatigue with self, the hunger for obliteration
that wakes us in the night at the dead hour
and fuels good sex.”
That poem. Sex, and death, and youth…because, after all, isn’t hunger for the young? Aren’t we–who have been going through this for a few decades now–aren’t we presumed to allow that wrenching hunger for touch, for reflection, for loss and forgetting of self…aren’t we supposed to let that go, little by little, year by year? Get used to it a little bit, maybe? And perhaps we do…
And then there are nights that close into an inescapable self, a “hated prison,” as another great poet, Tony Hoagland, once put it. He too was talking about the desire to escape it through sex:
“…and does the man see the woman as a door
through which he might escape
the hated prison of himself,
and when the door is locked,
does he hate the door instead?
Does he learn to hate all doors?”
He is talking about misogyny. Misanthropy. The way we hate others when they won’t give us what we want. And our belief that sex is a way through, and out of, this.
My year has been about facing my own shadow. It’s a terrifying thing to behold. In myself, all of the anger, the pettiness, the fear, the judgment, that I recoil from when I see it in others. This has never been so real for me. Every single thing I judge and reject in others, I judge and reject in myself. Not a new idea by any stretch. But I never expected to experience it so blatantly, so unequivocally, within my own magic prison, this incomprehensible boundary through which I encounter all that is.
The self! It’s the place to be, right? Except, when it isn’t…
Earlier, as I was walking around Red Hook, feeling acutely pained and not wanting to, I tried to summon what I’ve learned: This is the time to open to compassion. Anyone at any moment might be feeling this pain. Remember. Remember.
I might long to always be in the place of openness to all the pain, the sorrow, the apartness, that must be endured in anyone’s life. But I am not always there. I try to fill my reserve of gratitude, making a practice of noticing and appreciating my staggering wealth of blessings every time something beautiful, something good, comes my way. I have so many opportunities to see this: greeting my cherished pup each morning. Having a cup of tea with milk. Getting an unexpected hug from one of the Compound kids. The sunlight…my good healthy body…the gifts of education, of advantage, of protected rights, of access to real agency in this world–all so clearly bestowed on me. And still, the moments my cup rings its emptiness, it’s as though the whole world hears that hollow sound.
A childless woman deserves a place in this world. I know this with my deepest wisdom, and still feel at times the bizarre sensation of the approaching second half of my life as a barer and barer path, tapering off into ultimate nothingness. Does the road in fact narrow? Or expand into the great Emptiness that contains all things? We watch the worlds of the sick, and the aged, shrinking. The physical diminishment is real in the way that we know things to be real. And as I type this I feel a delicacy, a light lacework of protest, in my left knee. The body remains, irreducible and real. I remind myself that I have in fact completed the trade-out of unfathomably awful health insurance for something slightly less bad. And again, remind myself of this incredible blessing–to have recourse. To have choices. I have a health-care plan I can afford, right now.
In the last few days, as I was disentangling myself from the stupid knot of red tape that wraps itself agonizingly around our health-care system, I suddenly felt for the first time the significance of not leaving behind a burden for someone else to carry. This, suddenly, was something I wanted very badly. Should something happen to me, I did not want my mother, my brother, to be cynically stripped of their resources, their capacity to survive. And this revelation made me understand how I am truly getting older. What will the world be like after I am gone?
It’s a process of coming to know that degeneration and disappearance are facts. In the last couple of years I have seen two beautiful lives, both with many years left to them, suddenly disappear. These friends were younger than me. And another friend–to me, a brother–looks flat in the face of his dwindling lifeforce. We know, we know. We know what will happen. And it is the completion–no less beautiful or perfect in the raw anguish it forces upon our vulnerable consciousness.
Oh, it’s Saturday night, and I ain’t got nobody. Sam Cooke was cut down–one of so many talented black men of that era–unthinkably, wrongly. I am tempted to say, unforgivably. But I have been visited by the grace of forgiveness, and I believe it to be the way through, and out of, this. All this.
And still there are some late nights when I cannot see through to its consoling face.