Tuesday, January 18, 2011

13. Coping with grief over another person's grief

The woman was radiant. Powerful, empowered, divine, loving, experienced, wise... She preached from the pulpit, and I grasped for each of her lyrical, evocative sentences, trying to cradle them all together at my chest. There were too many; some slipped through my fingers. But I held what I could, letting the words and images warm me from the outside in.

Then, she said it-- and my bundles dropped to the floor, words spilling across the tiles, rolling into corners and under chairs beside people's resting feet.

It was one sentence. She said it so fluidly, no choking or halting or stifled sobs. She said, "Five weeks later, my son was dead."

She kept on talking. Her voice dared me to have pity on her-- she did not want it. She spoke as someone who has felt hurt and processed it, so that she had... not moved on, exactly, but rather reached a space of wisdom and acceptance.

I myself could not reach that space so quickly. I sat alone in the middle of a row of church chairs, and I started crying. Quietly, so that I think no one noticed (far be it from me to intrude on this woman's own articulation of her own grief) but still I cried.

Now, I don't usually cry when other people share past hurts. This is not to say that I don't care-- quite the contrary-- I just usually register my compassion in other ways. I'm not sure what about this moved me so differently. It could simply be that I've allowed my emotions to situate themselves closer to the surface of late, and so they spill over to the outside more easily. But I think it was something more than that: I think it was this beautiful, glowing, radiant woman, who had experienced the greatest pain, they say, that a mother can know-- and here she was: standing beautiful, glowing, radiant. Still.

She had every reason not to be. She could have allowed her grief to hobble her for the rest of her life, and no one would have condemned or even judged her. Not only would this reduction of self, this shrinking into sadness, be accepted, it would arguably be expected of someone in her position.

She defied this expectation. She made her grief her own, and she worked through it. I was (still am) humbled and inspired by her example. That someone could say (without saying), my son died, and my grief will not consume me. I will not let this bring me down. I will instead keep exploring, keep growing my light. I will shine strong-- stronger-- into-- all over!-- the world.

And this, not even because of her grief, not even in spite of it. Instead, her son's death was. She is. Facts of a life-- diverse, rich, well lived.

The woman is an inspiration. That is part of why I cried. But that doesn't feel like the whole of it. I guess, for lack of any other explanation, I also cried because it was sad. Yes, I can see the bigger picture. I can see that life goes on, that her son's life was worth his having lived it, even if only for some eighteen years. I can see that her life is worth living still. I can see that perhaps this event-- which feels so tragic, so cataclysmic to us, with our limited vision-- might have some greater meaning in the larger context of the cosmos. But it is still sad.

And I think another part of it is that this woman was doing what I would have every parent do for her or his child: She was giving her son his freedom. He wanted adventure; she said yes. She allowed for the risk that so many parents refuse to permit their children to take-- and it met with such terrible consequences. Quite literally, the "worst that could happen"-- happened.

But of course, she was right to let him go. A life in a cage-- however lovingly constructed-- is still imprisonment. And maybe this, after all, is why I cried: because boy did that young man live. Eighteen years old, and he was living freer than many people do in a lifetime composed of decades, and decades.
But he did it. He went out there. And yes, we could say: he got torn apart.

But don't you see? To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. You can't go out with fireworks, unless you lived like one.

And so I cried because this life is terrible and tragic and mesmerizing and magical and my-God-holy-cow-huge and because there are people, hardly eighteen years old, or preaching from a pulpit, in their sixties and gray, who are willing to go out and seize it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

12. Getting disciplined about being free

Today, after much generalized anxiety followed by an hour-long yoga flow that was a semi-successful attempt to calm myself down, I was lying on the floor in shavasana (final corpse pose) when I felt, so intensely, the need to make music. So I sat down at my old piano, opened the cover, and put my fingers on the keys.

Only trouble is, I haven't seriously played the piano in years. I was decent, when I was a regular practitioner, but at thist point most of my abilities have been relegated to the sub-conscious storage compartment, and even though I think I still have the right key for the lock it didn't do me much good-- as I seem to have forgotten where said compartment is.

But I decided to forge on, regardless. I started out slow: running through chord progressions and warming up my fingers with fast runs over the keys. Then I began (fairly successfully) to play some well-known songs by ear. Gradually I became a bit more daring, and I started composing some simple melodies. As usual, I found my stride in the minor keys, and it was pretty and it was good.

But it was still so... restrained. And this, quite simply, is because I'm not good enough to make music that's really wild and really free.

Now, one could argue that this appraisal isn't entirely accurate. I mean, I did try to get wild. I started pounding keys at random, spastically slamming my fingers at high speeds and irregular intervals all over the board. I waved my arms and I hit hard and fast, like a little wild child.

Arguably, this is in its own right a way of being free. But this is being free in a different medium than the one I'd originally intended: I was letting my body get wild and free (flailing can do that for a person), but it was no longer music that was taking me to that place. And I was really, really wanting, this evening, to find freedom through music-- and music of my own creation, at that.

But this was not a possibility for me, and it's for one simple reason: Because I am no longer a practiced piano player. I'm  therefore not good enough to really let go, to let the music and my fingers and my muscle memory carry me away.

Realizing this made me realize further: If you want to free yourself*, you first have to (brace yourself for the paradox) cultivate discipline.

This is true, I would argue, for any medium: art, music, writing, acting, athleticism, dancing, spiritual practice, what have you. It's sort of a "gotta know the rules before you can break 'em" situation: You have to be good enough at something (which requires a whole lot of commitment, practice-- discipline) that your mind no longer has to be in control of everything-- which means that you are therefore able to let go into the current (or what a lot of creativity psychologists refer to as "flow"-- interesting, yes?), and let it carry you away, somewhere above and beyond, somewhere that inspires and moves and transports and, yes, liberates-- you.

*I just realized that the concept of what it is to "free one's self" should probably be broken down at some point. Perhaps this will be the subject of another post.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

11. Courage to face a crocodile (Part 2)

So I'm standing here, on the rim of this cliff/on the bank of this river/at the forest's mossy green edge. I'm standing here, and I'm seeing all of these sharks swarming, these gorillas lining up, these crocodiles lying in wait. I begin to name them: That one there? That's self-doubt. That cluster right below me, jaws furiously snapping? Those are all of the ways that Ic and society try to keep me "in my place" (whatever that means): "I'm/you're not smart/talented/special/pretty/strong/brave/gifted/independent/experienced/ capable/_________ (fill in the blank) enough." You (these monsters tell me) are not enough. Therefore, little girl, you have no chance of making it across this river. Best to stay right where you are, where you're safe. You're comfortable where you are, aren't you? You have clothes, food, a bed. Best not to risk the journey.

I think one of the greatest challenges set before us human beings is that of living our lives exactly as we envision and are called to do-- that of really living-- in spite of these terrible voices that are constantly firing at our defenses, both from within and without.

It is a grand challenge, to be sure. But the alternative, of not rising to the challenge, of not giving it a shot? No, thank you. That's not good enough-- for me.

So. I have come to an understanding with and within myself: I refuse to dabble at the edge for much longer. The question still remains, though: How to defeat the crocodiles? How can I possibly dive into those shark-infested waters and emerge, intact, on the other side?

For a while, I assumed that it was a question of merely building a strong armor-- I would strengthen all of my defenses, I decided, and then just plunge in and make a run for it. I figured I'd get chewed up pretty bad, and lose some flesh along the way-- a hunk of an arm here, a big gash in leg-- but, hey, I've got a pretty high tolerance for pain.

It was only when I started writing this that I realized that's not the way. In fact, I was envisioning the goal all wrong. Because the point, I think, is not to get to the other side. What is "the other side" but a mirror of where you already are? The reflections are opposite, perhaps, but their content is the same. On the other side I would still be on a bank, on a cliff, at a forest's edge-- just looking at it from another direction. No, we are not meant to fend off the swarms that seek to tear us apart. Think how long one could get bogged down, there, fighting for her/his life! Why, it's quite possible one would never get out.

Here, instead, is what we should do: Slip downstream, a ways. You will hear terrible sounds as the hungry hordes, desperate for flesh, for sustenance-- for anything, because they are not sure of what they want, began to rip into each other. Keep walking. When you've cleared the mass gathering, take off your shoes. Strip off your clothes, too, if you feel like it (this part isn't necessary, but it does mean that your travels will be even less bogged down). Then, step into the water. Walk toward the center of the river, until your feet lose touch with the pebbled bottom and your body is floating free. Duck under, into the current. Let the river carry you, out into the great wide sea.

That sea is life! Seek it. Let yourself go.

10. Courage to face a crocodile (Part 1)

I've been having very vivid dreams for the past month or more, many of them involving crocodiles, alligators, sharks, giant gorillas, and other ominous and threatening creatures (perhaps surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh was not among them). In nearly every one of these dreams I find myself at an edge-- most often of a body of water-- which I somehow, intrinsically, *know* that I must cross-- and which I am simultaneously terrified of crossing.

The symbolism here could drive an English major into a delirium from which she might never return. Because really, the timing here is so perfect: I have been a college graduate for more than a year. I have just completed a fixed term of employement, and (until four days ago) was facing a new year with no job, no home to call my own, no academic constraints, no health care payments (thank you, Obamacare!), no children, no exclusive partner, no pets, no car-- hell, not even a concrete dream (at least, not as pertains to careers).

In short, I am, completely and utterly, free of any commitments.

It would be easy, in this situation, to focus on all those "no's" in that second paragraph-- to look at my life and see nothing but lack. NO job? NO home? NO car? Good grief, does the girl have anything to her name?!

That would be easy. But I think it's possible to view this situation in another way: I see the absences left by all these "no's"-- and I see them as creating a whole lot of spaces that can be filled. And what is marvelous and thrilling-- and, yes, scary and unnerving-- is that I get to choose how to fill them. Me. Myself. I.

More than any other time in my life, I am coming to grips with the fact that my life is completely my own responsibility. And so perhaps I was too hasty when I said that I don't have any commitments right now. Because I do still have one infinitely meaningful, infinitely important commitment: the commitment (which we each carry, I think) to myself. For myself, I must make a life.

In the past, to varying degrees, I have shunned this responsibility. I busied myself with fulfilling the commitments that society/other people/my own tendencies made for me: homework, extracurriculars, homework, making my body "beautiful" (read: acceptable), homework, work duties, volunteerism, depression, relationships, more homework. None (or at least, most) of these things are inherently "bad", obviously. But they do become problematic when they are used as a means of avoiding absolute responsibility of Self.

In the past, these were my crocodiles: the "responsibilities" that become excuses for not actually living the life you have imagined for yourself, and/or the life that you are called to live.

Over the years, gradually, and with some missteps and some backsliding, I have fought off these motherfuckers. And now here I stand, having shed most of my excuses and much of my baggage, poised at the edge of a cliff.