What We Learned From What We Lost

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Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

…Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

     —from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye

In 2008, the city I live in experienced a catastrophic flood. It surprised us, the waters rising fast and destroying so much of what made our town unique. I’ll always be haunted by the memory of cresting the hill on the south side of town, after the main flood waters had passed, to discover the very heart of the city enveloped in darkness. The sorrow and loss of it.

For eight years, many people labored to not only bring the city back but to make it better, stronger, more distinctive until you could literally feel the energy of creativity and new growth.

And then the unthinkable: another flood threatened the city in the very same way. This time, we had some warning, a little time to prepare. And the people, remembering, rolled up their sleeves and got to work saving our city and each other. It was inspiring, and it was humbling – and it was an example of what we are capable of when we forget our differences in the midst of what we share.

We still have our differences. We still have our critics. We still have our imperfections. (I myself will still complain that there’s not even a decent cup of coffee to be had after 4:00 p.m. on Sundays.) However, what we learned from what we lost is ours now – we own it, and it has changed us for the better.

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Chausson’s Bicycle

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In 1899, Romantic composer, Ernest Chausson, went out for a bicycle ride. While riding downhill, he hit a brick wall and was killed instantly, cutting short a promising career. In her poem about Chausson’s death, Denise Levertov imagines him riding, his mind filled with music and the colors of the countryside, both gaining in intensity as he gathers speed, takes flight on his bicycle. And then the wall, and a sudden silence.

I’ve owned Breathing the Water, Levertov’s collection of poems in which “From the Image-Flow — Death of Chausson, 1899” is printed, for twentysome years. I’m uncertain how many times, in those years, I’ve read this poem without real comprehension. I didn’t know who Chausson was and never felt enough curiosity to look him up. Furthermore, as someone who didn’t ride a bike, I didn’t catch her allusions to cycling.

This week, I happened to read the poem again and, although she never uses the word “bicycle”, I knew. I finally understood the poem (not just the words she used), and I caught on to the manner of Chausson’s death without resorting to Wikipedia (though I did look it up just to be sure).

What made the difference to my comprehension, this time around? It wasn’t imagination, I’ve certainly had the same ability to conjure thoughts and mental pictures at other times. And I doubt it was merely a matter of timing. No, what opened me up to the imagery of the poem was experience: the flash of recognition that comes with having practical contact with and observation of facts or events.

There was a time in my life when I did not seek out experiences. A long period in which it seemed enough to imagine, dream or surmise how a thing might feel; to use books or other people’s life stories as a guide. “Practical contact” might lead to things I feared, things like pain or grief or disappointment – so I avoided it. I anesthetized myself with food, and protected my tender possibilities with layers of fat that held other people and direct experience at bay. Eventually, I protected myself into near self-obliteration – both literally and figuratively. Almost worse than the erasure of my own life was the discovery that I had completely blunted my ability to feel empathy or compassion.

I had lost my ability to feel my way into a poem.

That changed when I began to say yes to new experiences. I even made it a New Year’s resolution one year: “Say yes to people and doing, no to staying home and sitting.”  Today, a few years down the line from that sterile space I once inhabited, I have not quite become an advocate of stockpiling experiences for their own sake. I still don’t understand the adrenaline-junkies among us, for example. But I have become a vociferous supporter of trying the things that call to you. This has led me to experiences I wouldn’t exchange for “safety”, even though some were emotionally difficult – experiences that opened my heart and engaged my intellect, experiences that allowed beauty to blow open my perceptions or that drew forth gifts I had hidden deep within.

If I hadn’t allowed myself to open up to experience, I wouldn’t have felt the grief  of this past week following the death of a friend. But I also wouldn’t have felt the balm of connection or the solidarity of shared loss.

After such a week, this is the two-fold gift of Chausson’s bicycle. First, the realization that my capacities (to see, to feel, to express) are enriched by engaging with new or broader experience. Second, that life cannot be fully lived if I’m always looking fearfully for the unseen brick wall ahead. Like Levertov’s imagined composer, I intend to ride fast and free, to hear arpeggios in the passing stream and revel in the flashing colors of this world. The wall and the silence are somewhere ahead: this I know. Even so, I will keep my feet to the pedals.

 

 

 

 

 

Turning Our Scars to Beauty Marks

We have no scar to show for happiness. — Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

When I left the house with my ice skates, Mom told me not to stay out too long in the sub-zero temperatures. It was cold enough that my face felt like it might crack into a million pieces every time I smiled. But I was ten and my friends were skating so I skated. It was too cold for leisurely touring around the rink, practicing my backwards skating or making imitation figure-skating moves. No one had brought their sticks, so hockey was out. Which left speed races or whiplash – the two options that would keep us all moving briskly enough to stay reasonably warm in the bitter cold.

If you’ve never played whiplash on ice, you’ve missed out on a truly exhilarating, yet terrifying, experience. Everyone forms a line, holding hands with the people in front of and behind them. The “leader” skates around in whatever erratic manner s/he prefers, while those in the line behind attempt to follow suit. Invariably, the pace picks up, and the whole line is suddenly skating faster and faster. Those toward the end of the line begin to be whipped around at astonishing speeds. Their task is to hold on for dear life! When, inevitably, they drop hands or fall, everyone shouts “Whiplash!”. The game stops while the line re-forms, with the last person moving to the front of the line and becoming the leader.

It wasn’t much fun to be the leader. Even if you tried to be creative, there was really only one point to the game: get the whole line moving fast enough that those at the back would be whipped around significantly enough to lose their balance or drop hands. The fun, as every kid would immediately guess, was had at the back of the line.

Anyway, on that particular afternoon, it was finally my turn to be at the end of the line. I usually managed to keep my feet in the game, but that afternoon was epic. Our Whiplashes were phenomenal! We kept congratulating one another on the way we were whipping each other around on the rink. I took my place at the end of the line with great anticipation. We picked up speed, going faster and faster. Then, just as I began to be propelled at high speed, I hit a divot in the ice and my left skate stopped dead. I fell, launching forward like a projectile, my arms out in front of me. I heard it was breathtaking, the way I flew threw the air stretched out like a parka-clad superhero. I landed in a belly-flop on the ice, which didn’t hurt so much as it left me unable to catch a breath. What did hurt was my right wrist, which landed immediately in front of someone else’s moving skate. Their jagged toe-pick immediately sliced into my wrist, and a pile-up of memorable proportions ensued. Eventually, those on top of the pile of bodies were able to regain their feet, and those of us at the bottom began testing our limbs to make certain nothing was broken. There was a jagged gash in my wrist, which the others gathered around to gawk at. Finally, my cold-addled brain registered the pain signals being sent to it, and I quickly headed home so I wouldn’t embarrass myself by wailing in front of the whole neighborhood.

I remember every detail of that afternoon, although it took place decades ago. (I admit I may have embellished the story a bit over the years.) Every time I notice the tiny white scar on my wrist, it all comes back to me. I don’t notice it that often, but frequently enough to keep ahold of those details.

And that’s how it is with scars. They serve as life-long reminders of the events that caused them. We don’t forget. This is true with emotional scars, as well as the physical ones. We seem always able to touch the scarring event or experience with an immediacy that can take us right to that moment, directly to that emotion. Sometimes, we wear the scar like a badge of honor, the way I wear that tiny white patch on my wrist – a sign of my own badassery or resilience. Sometimes, the scar serves as a warning system, reminding us of the pain that can happen if we don’t protect ourselves. We wear our negative and painful experiences on the surface of our bodies and our psyches, keeping those feelings and experiences – for good or ill – always accessible.

Unfortunately, the same is not also true of happy feelings and experiences. They do not imprint themselves on our surfaces, with similar easy access to memory or the same immediacy of emotion that scars produce. This can lead us to a lopsided recollection of our lives – we readily see the times that scarred us, but have to work harder to recall the times of happiness or positive growth with the same detail.

I think this was the impetus that led me to get a tattoo a few years ago. I wanted a visual reminder of my own growth and the positive changes I was enacting in my life. It was the thought behind the social media campaign “To write love on her arms”. In some ways, it may be the impetus behind our need to document everything in our lives these days with cell phone photos, snapchats, instagrams and selfies. See? we seem to be saying. There was beauty today. Or laughter. Or one shining moment that deserves to be remembered.

Earlier this week, my dear friend Amy passed away unexpectedly. She was too young; her death is a shock to all who knew and loved her. First, there were the tears and expressions of disbelief. And while the pain of loss and grief is still fresh, I’ve been watching the steady stream of photos and memories being shared on social media. As friends and family have stopped to remember, it is the happy moments they are bringing forward and sharing: Amy’s beautiful and irrepressible smile, her positive energy, her kindness. I can’t count how many times in the past few days I’ve said to myself, “Ah, I had forgotten!”

Not only that, but many of us have reconnected over our shared grief and our happy memories. It is so easy to forget, in the busyness of life, the people we’ve loved with and laughed with, the moments and experiences that have fed our souls, the happinesses that enhance our lives – they do so without leaving scars behind to keep them available to us, to remind us to touch them with the same care (and reverence) with which we touch our scarred places.

Was that cold afternoon on an ice rink in Hastings Minnesota really a defining moment in my life? No. What did I learn? I learned that there’s a down-side to being the last person in a Whiplash! line. I learned that injuries in bitter cold don’t bleed as profusely as they do once they warm up. Conversely, were the many happy and laughter-filled moments with Amy defining experiences? I believe they were – I was reminded to take myself less seriously; I discovered that it is possible to work to physical exhaustion and still be enjoying the moment; I learned the fine art of the inside joke from a master. And I learned that happiness is something we have to work for, to take risks for – Amy taught me that through the example of her life, not because she died.

If happiness leaves a scar, it is only when we realize we’ve not attended to it as fully as we ought to have. Perhaps that is just the way it is. But what if we practiced holding happiness at our surfaces, the way we hold our painful scars? What if we looked for ways to write/imprint love and joy on our bodies and our psyches so that we have inadvertent and regular reminders to attend to them? We could call them beauty marks and it wouldn’t be a euphemism! What if, every time we saw or felt a scar or scarring memory, we taught ourselves to also recall a happiness or positive growth moment? Would this help to correct our lopsided vision of ourselves, our capacities, our realities? All I know is that I’d like it to. And that most of us could stand a little self-correction toward a more positive vision of ourselves, our experiences, our lives.  Here’s wishing us all plentiful beauty marks!

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Not Finite

How will you know the difficulties of being human, if you are always flying off to blue perfection? Where will you plant your grief seeds? Workers need ground to scrape and hoe, not the sky of unspecified desire. –Rumi

When we were in graduate school, my friend Cathann mentioned something in conversation that I’ll never forget – we don’t have a finite amount of love; therefore, giving love to one person does not mean we have less to give another. There is always more available.

I’ve not forgotten these words, though sometimes their truth sneaks up on me. It sneaks up on me when I’m not looking for new friends but they appear anyway. It catches me by surprise when I’ve been avoiding connecting with loved ones because “I’m too busy” but we somehow connect anyway – and I find that lightens, rather than adds to, my burdens. Unfortunately, this truth also catches up with me in moments of sadness and regret, when I realize I felt love that remained unexpressed.

I don’t know how anyone else experiences this, but for me, once I’ve loved someone I apparently carry love for that person inside – even if it is buried in the debris of broken promises or hurt feelings. Even if it was a love that I experienced in my childhood but has been left at the bottom of my heart, like a favorite teddy bear forgotten in a box in the attic. I suspect this is true for most of us, if the heartwarming stories we hear of people who have reconnected with past friends, lovers and lost family members are to be believed.

All that love just being hoarded somewhere in the over-stuffed storage-units of our hearts.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. A few weeks ago, I happened to see a comment on a Facebook feed, placed there by my ninth grade boyfriend. Now, I haven’t been connected with this man in so many years, I literally gave up trying to count them. Seeing his name, I felt a small rush of warmth and a sudden desire to reach out to him. I didn’t, though. (Honest admission: I did do a small amount of cyber-stalking, but it was just a few clicks on some internet links.) It left me wondering what stopped me – not from rekindling a relationship of some kind, but from simply saying, “Hello! I still think fondly of you from time to time.” The answer that comes back to me, in my most truthful moments, is that I didn’t want to be burdened with any messy-ness (what if he’s weird? what if he’s dangerous? what if he’s awesome and I don’t have time for another long-distance friend?) that could conceivably come from connecting.

And this week, I’ve been grieving the sudden death of my cousin, Tom, whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. We spent a lot of time together as kids – he was a few years older than me and, exotically, lived on a farm. Tom was always kind and gentle and protective of me, even when he was teasing me for my “city” ways, or calling me Angie Palucci* – a nickname I hated from everyone else but didn’t mind from him. He’s the one who told me the truth about Santa Claus, because I was upset that the other kids were calling me a baby when their nudge-nudge-wink-wink comments went over my head. Tom’s the one whose crooked smile started with a downturning of the mouth before it lit up his face. Now that he’s gone, I feel the space he has been holding in my heart.

I’ve been regretting that I didn’t make an effort to stay in touch.  Wondering why I never took the turn toward the farm when I drove past on the nearby highway – I know I thought about it every time. I suspect it goes back to that idea of somehow being “burdened” – by people and their inevitable imperfections and needs? by love and its inevitable imperfections and needs?

Or is it the fear of finite inner resources? Fear of my own inevitable imperfections and needs?

I’ve said this before (and it won’t surprise anyone, especially those who know me), but I am a slow learner; I am someone who needs to relearn the same concepts over and over before they stick. Just thinking about that teddy bear in the attic is enough to remind me that I still feel love for it. All this time, I thought I was putting it away in order to make room to love something else, when what I was really doing was protecting myself. I didn’t want to see myself reflected in his button eyes as the limited, flawed person I am.

The reality, the truth I keep losing track of is this: My perfection is finite, love’s is not. There might not be room enough in my daily life to be connected to everyone in a perfect and non-needy way. In fact, I’m sure there isn’t – I will sometimes be the cause of hurt, sometimes let people down, sometimes be so focused on my own needs that I run right over you/your needs. But that’s about my human limitations, and not about love.

The sneaky truth, the one I keep losing sight of, is that love isn’t about me, created by me, or controlled by me; it has it’s own perfection that doesn’t flow from me. Unlike my time, my patience, and my impulse toward altruism, love is NOT finite – there is always more available.

Love itself describes its own perfection.
Be speechless and listen.

~ Rumi.

*(the name of a character on the Doris Day show that played in after-school reruns at the time)