Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Feelings. Nothing more than feelings...

I have deleted about a hundred opening statements for this essay to date.  That I started it only a few minutes ago will give you some perspective on how freaking difficult I find this particular exercise.


Gah.  Blank stare into the middle distance.  Slight rise in heart rate (the physical heart, not the lumpy, squishy metaphorical, poetic version that gets all ooey-gooey, that skips a beat, that breaks, that sings, that does all those feeling things).  No, the elevated heart rate and thin patina of cold sweat come from the slightly panicky sensation that washes over me when I think about feeling.  My feelings, to be exact.  Yours are all well and good, honest, forthright, uncomplicated.  Mild.  Gentle, even.

Me?  I have to remind myself that, although I can feel mostly disconnected and disjointed and off-kilter and sad and lost and broke and a few thousand other things, the miracle is that I can "feel" at all.  I went for decades honestly believing that I didn't.  Or that my feelings went in a straight line between "fine" and "tired."  I spent a few eternities believing that my emotions were so powerful that if I allowed myself to actually feel them, they would, most likely, kill me.  They were Leviathan, a maelstrom of churning energy, an endless and infinite whirlpool that would suck me down and swallow me whole.  I invested in them all the power and capriciousness of an avenging God, waiting to strike out and smite me.

Talk about shut down!  It took me years to admit that "tired" is not an emotion.  Then it took me a few more years to figure out that I might actually have to learn how to feel something, anything.  As numb as I was, that gaping hole inside--- the one that tried to keep God out and trapped me in a tiny universe of one, the one that housed my self-loathing and self-doubt, the one that kept me enraptured with self-destruction and addicted to More, that blanketed me with isolation and whispered that I might as well drink, because alcohol at least smudged the lines of pain and left in its wake the slow burn of abject surrender--- that hole was leaking my stiff control into the real world and I just couldn't do it anymore.  I couldn't even stay numb.  

I had had glimpses of real joy, even amidst my pain.  I had allowed myself a few moments to hope that it could be-- would be-- better, and the gods did not come to crush me for my bit of presumption.  And so began my quest: to learn how to feel, how to be present and sit comfortably in my own skin.  I approached the task like I approach a still pond on a hot summer day:  toe outstretched, skimming the surface and testing the waters.  I splashed in the shallows for a while, water to my ankles, getting acclimated, getting wet, venturing out a bit farther in fits and starts, depending upon how brave I might be at any given moment.  

And so I learned.  In fits and starts, I learned.  Mostly.  I get happy and sad and mad and glad--- the basics, so I've discovered.  And I get wistful and silly and frustrated and bored and joyful and distracted and a thousand other things.  Sometimes singly, sometimes in weird pastiches that cycle a hundred feelings in an instant and leave me breathless.  I get to feel all that stuff, every day.  I stuck my toe in that dark and murky pool, eyes screwed shut, until I could bear to leap.  And I leaped.  And I was not devoured.  I lived to tell the tale.

So why is it, so many years later, that just when I think my head is above water, that my toes have found something solid upon which to stand, everything seems to have shifted, and that solid ground is nothing more than quicksand, sucking me under?  When the hell did this happen?  

I swear to God--- I am a strong and capable woman.  I am successful, frighteningly intelligent, witty as hell.  Why do I suddenly feel as if I'm mired in a bog, unable to function?  The worst part--- I can see myself holding the compass, the road  map, clearly marked with "Here be dragons" and "Beware the Swamps of Doom".  I am holding the damned instruction manual in my hands, dammit.  I know I have all the tools, right at my fingertips, and yet I seem so incapable of navigating my way through my life.

I know a lot of things, actually.  I know that this, too, shall pass.  I know that God is with me always.  That my only job, really, is to love my son and help him find his own path.  That there's nothing so bad that a drink won't make worse.  I know that I have been whole but now feel broken.  I know I have been caught, redeemed, loved, and now feel lost.  I know I still stutter and stumble and avoid the phrases "I don't know" and "I need help."

I know that the longest journey I've ever had to make is the one from my head to my heart.  It seems like an endless journey through a trackless, cold and lonely desert.

I've been here before.  In a thousand different iterations, I have stood in this spot, lost and lonely and afraid. And I am tired of this introspection.  Tired of this interminable quest to figure out what the hell is going on in my life, how I can feel happy in my life, where is God in my life, on and on, ad nauseum.At some point, it becomes self-indulgent, and I come off as a pampered prima donna (feel free to protest this point, eloquently (yet vehemently), that nothing could be further from the truth).  I am so tired of feeling like a tightly wound spring.  I don't know how to change this, so I avoid it and go numb.  I disconnect: one more piece of pain that I have to confront, and I just can't do it.  Not today.  I can only pretend to be brave for so long.

I hate having to admit this.  I am too old to dance with these ghosts again, too old for this bout of existential angst and self doubt.  I want to do it differently, to fix it, and it feels as if I have slammed into a mountain of glass.  I can't find a handhold, my feet slip and slide out from under me, leaving me prostrate and bruised.

But here's the difference:  all impotence aside, all quivery, fearful drowning-while-immobile, breathless and clueless and broken, I know one more thing:  in the face of everything, act.

And so I do.  In fits and starts, sometimes with feet dragging, I act; I move.  And then, I dive.  Dive inward, to find God and grace.  Leap upward, light the torch, search for a hand to hold in the darkness.  I ask for help to find a soft spot upon which to land.  How much more miraculous, more holy can it get?  How astounding, that in the space between breaths, I find peace and the world changes.  This is all holy space.  It is measured in the space between you and me.  It's all there, the sacred, the holy, surrounding us, connecting us, keeping us whole.  Keeping me whole.  If I can just commit, just trust, just forgive, just love, then I would know I was in the presence of God.

Life is not what I expected.  Life is.  That's the deal.  It's bumpy and messy and scary and happy and joyous and annoying and surprising, in infinite variety and subtlety. And most of all: changing.  I get to participate in that.  I get to do it well, fuck it up, find moments of grace.  In the midst of pain or doubt or joy, or hope, it is not so dark; I am not so alone, as long as I put one foot in front of the other.  I get to find God, every day.  I can be made whole, every day.  I can be healed, every day.  None of this comes naturally.  It is still easier, at times, to disconnect than to willingly open up my heart.  But, I have known God's grace, and I have felt joy and love, and so I struggle gladly to be human, every day.

God is here, in this place with me, and I----

Today, I know it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Epiphany at the Gas Station

Tis the season, I guess, to talk of epiphanies.  I am in need of one.  Of course, when I talk of epiphanies, I always think in terms of angels dancing on the head of a pin, thunder and lightening, heavenly hosts singing hosanna to the Most High.  I want the drama, the wonders and portents.  I crave drama.  It feels more real, for some inexplicable reason, when I am snatched back from the very brink of despair and dire straits.

I want the earthquake, God as a Pillar of Fire.  What I mostly get is the still small voice.

Apparently, I get what I need.  Apparently, what I needed was the quiet voice of a stranger to give me that moment of clarity that allows me to hear the voice of God.

This was years ago.  Couple of decades at best guess.  I was breaking into Corporate America through a side door.  Having worked for a national poor people's organization for several years, whose unspoken guiding principle seemed to be "to organize the poor you have to be poor," and not being a trust fund baby like so many of my long-term colleagues, I was ready to actually explore the borders of capitalism in all its glory.  Don't get me wrong: I wasn't interested in becoming a capitalist.  No, I wanted to exploit the system for all it was worth.

I was approaching thirty, and everything I owned fit in the trunk of my car.  I had moved back and forth across the country about fifteen times in four or five years. It got to be that I knew, anytime I bought something that wouldn't quite fit in my car, my boss would fly into town and tell me where the next adventure would be.  It was never around the corner.  Mostly, it involved uprooting my rather tenuous life and driving several hundred miles, fueled by caffeine and the fervent, clear-eyed zeal of the True Believer in social justice.

After years of this nomadic existence, I was finally back in Chicago.  It was winter.  It was cold.  Really, really cold.  After a few months, the fateful phone call.  Not even a visit this time: time to pack up again, this time for the balmy climes of Minneapolis.  In January.  I couldn't do it.  Just couldn't start over one more time.  I was tired.  I was done.  I quit.  Now what?

Seriously: now what?  What could I possibly do, career-wise?  I had a degree in history and experience rousing the rabble, as it were.  What the hell was I going to do with the rest of my life?  Honestly, the prospect of living on my parents' floor did not fill me with whelm.  I remember reading a want ad for the CIA.  They were looking for spies, wanted someone smart, who spoke two or more languages and offered good benefits, including on-site daycare.  Talk about early indoctrination.  Sadly, I fit the bill.  Instead of leaping at my chance to dabble in covert affairs, I drifted towards something else equally suspect in my mind, and sidled into the halls of Corporate America through the time-honored tradition of nepotism.  My brother had a gig and gave me a job.  From community organizer to insurance salesperson in one easy step.  I held my nose and jumped, trying hard not to look back.

Trouble was, my life didn't change quite as much as I thought it would.  I was still broke--- or as close to broke so that it made no real difference.  My adherence to Democratic Socialism still rested firmly on the shoulders of my father's very capitalistic law practice (as my parents were so quick to point out).  My wardrobe still consisted mainly of loose, comfortable black, although every so often, I threw in a belt to give my clothes some shape.  I still slept on the floor of my parents' home.  Everything I owned still fit in the trunk of my car.

My car.

My car was becoming quite the issue.  It was old and tired.  My knowledge of all things auto was severely lacking.  I knew to put gas in it.  I was vaguely aware that oil was involved in some way.  Even with my singular lack of expertise, I knew something was amiss.  The car was complaining to me, softly at first, then with increasing stridency: grinding and squeaking, all the while hesitating a bit, chugging a bit more, begging for rest and respite in its car-like, pitiful way.  With every passing day, I could feel it poised for total failure.  Tires.  Exhaust.  Heating.  Cooling.  I'm sure that Newton's Laws of Motion were in question in regards to my car, especially as they relate to acceleration, which my car did only after I said please and thank you and left small gifts and other automotive sacrifices on the hood. The issues loomed larger.

And me?  I just kept driving, eyes straight ahead, all willful defiance and determined nonchalance.  If I refused to acknowledge impending doom, I reasoned, then there could, by definition, be no doom.  That I took my life in my hands (and, by extension, the rest of the driving public) every time I got behind the wheel was something that entered my mind only when it got very, very quiet.  Since my method of car repair involved intensive use of the volume control knob on my radio, quiet was never a reality.  Loud goes a long way in all things repair.  If you don't hear the grinding, squeaking, gasping, rattling, coughing knocks and noises, then they don't exist.  Right?

This state of plausible deniability went on for months.  With every new noise, every new stutter, every desperate twist of the volume knob, my shoulders hunched just a bit more, my breathing strained and got more shallow.  Everything wrong with the car got all tangled and twisted and enmeshed.  It was fast becoming like that giant ball of string that gets lost in the junk drawer: no beginning, no end, no real hope to unravel it.  I was broke.  I was lost.  I was facing a solid, impenetrable wall of Broken, all-encompassing and infinite in its looming menace, and had no resources to face it or fix it.  Like Atlas, I carried this weight on my shoulders, and all I wanted to do was shrug.  And me, being me, just piled on each new problem more precariously, higher and higher, until the pile threatened to topple and bury me under its weight.

Months into this insane dance, I stopped at a gas station.  Gas I could handle.  Mostly.  While I was there, filling my tank, one of the mechanics came out.  "One of your headlights is out," he said, nodding at the offending lamp.

I laughed, and I think some of my bitterness slipped just a bit.  "One more piece of Broken," I said.

And that's when it happened.  That's when the guy transformed (transcended? ascended? transmogrified?) from mechanic to avatar of God.  Or at least God's messenger.  Or something equally holy.  I sat in my car, that shivering, sputtering lump of metal, held together with nothing more than hope, and the waters of all that was broken and heavy parted, separated before me, to show a clear, dry, smooth path to the other side.

The mechanic/avatar/messenger said: "You know, we could run a diagnostic on the car, figure out everything that's wrong, and then fix them one by one."

One by one?  Wait.  What?

My brain spluttered at the thought: one by one?  Nonononono, I shouted loudly into my silent internal landscape. It is a lonely and wind-torn place, a black hole of forever where I go and set up camp, hunkering down for the long dark nights of my soul.  It's a bad neighborhood and I wander its tumbledown streets alone with some regularity, mugging myself and my psyche every so often.  My car is a giant ball of tangled messy string, a mobius strip of problems, an eternal quagmire of broken, with no beginning and no end.

And not just my car (though how simple if that were the case).  I ran my life like this: collected stray bits of problems and hurts and slights and sadnesses and fears and doubts and rolled them all into a ball and hid them all away, ashamed and overwhelmed and convinced that if I ignored them all long enough, they would just all melt away, leaving me whole and pure and happy once again.  There was so much, and they all just festered and rotted and melted together until they became one, a leviathan of Bad, immense and hungry and devouring.

And here, unasked for, was grace: get it all down and act, one by one.

I cannot do forever, no matter how hard I try.

I can do one.

And then another. And another.  And again.  However many ones it takes, I can do that.

I take my miracles where I find them.  As much as I would appreciate those miracles to be accompanied with flashes of lightening and blaring thunder, choirs of angels singing and doing the tango on the head of a pin, my life-altering truths tend to be much quieter.  They certainly help to get me right-sized and breathing. They slow the patter of my heart, quiet the chittering of old voices that whisper lies in sibilant hisses somewhere in my head.

So.  I can do one.  Then another.  I can give thanks for the small miracles and an avatar of God.  I can breathe. I can sing with angels, and then I can do one.