Saturday, August 19, 2006

Preserving the Wild Soul

Julia & Dylan, August 2006

We’re sitting on a red and blue quilt on a wide green lawn overhung with cedars, at an Ani diFranco concert. It is my daughter’s last night before she leaves us to go back to school for her junior college year, maybe the last summer she will come to spend with us before she travels to Europe to study opera. Because she is going, because we are already feeling her loss, she sits between my husband and I, rather than having to choose sides. When he goes off to find us dessert, she leans into me and asks, “Any last words of wisdom?” I laugh and tell her she has almost surpassed me in wisdom, and that the best I can tell her is to trust herself, to trust what she wants. She knows what I mean by this.

We have spent most of the summer deciphering what it means to live by one’s instinctive nature. I have experimented with sitting in one place doing nothing for hours until it occurs to me what I really want. I have gotten up, made a sandwich, taken a walk, written an essay, sat in stillness with those words. She has tried a few experiments with casual relationships, and then determined it isn’t for her. Through a health challenge, I have begun to look at my own history of pushing through adversarial circumstances, managing details, caring for others, because I was strong and I could – but not necessarily because I was acting out of my own sense of order or horror or beauty or understanding. My daughter also has allowed herself to stop; to rest her voice for six weeks, to cease requiring a busy social life, to sit in her own boredom until she could locate her essence.

I think if I could pass along one bit of knowing to her it would be this: One cannot preserve the wild soul on piecemeal terms. I have tried. I have tried taking a karate class, and redecorating the living room and cleansing my liver and buying the cutest freakin boots to ever walk down Pike Street. Beautiful alterations that lasted a few moments, and still never delivered the intended, lasting joie de vivre.

What sustains my wild soul is living less out of perceived obligation, finding the place where desire and responsibility have merged into one soulful union. It can emerge in writing what has depth, rather than what I think someone is going to buy. It can come in finding creative people to be in relationship with, and then setting a structure to that interaction that allows each of us to thrive. It can come in noticing anger when it arises, and not making anyone else but myself responsible for that anger; it can come through taking action to alter the circumstances that cause my resentment. It can come through consistently making choices not to alter my consciousness with substances, to live in truth as it arises. It can come through giving myself enough time to follow a spontaneous choice – to turn to my daughter in the middle of making dinner, and laugh and sing and turn off the peas to have a long embrace. Or, in saying to the family – I need quiet to write, and I’m going in here and shutting the door, and unless there’s catastrophe – don’t disturb me.

And I know she’s learned this, because I watch my daughter making choices to halt the red shoes’ incessant dance. On a summer trip to see her childhood friend Julia, after a luscious Indian dinner, and a drive through Vancouver, and consulting the paper for nightlife, she decides she wants to craft a full moon ritual instead of either going to party or descending into abstract conversation. “What makes you most a woman? What does it mean for you to be female?” she asks us. And after we answer, in between nibbling a bowl of cherries and lighting candles and finding bed linens for makeshift beds, I lay my head on a pillow and close my eyes, safe in an apartment full of women who know who are they, and if not, who can sense who they are becoming. An hour later I wake up to giggles and splashes. She and Julia have submerged themselves in a bubble bath, where I will learn later, they have set themselves right on all matters of uncommunicative men, and disaffected roommates and ineffective teachers.

Joseph Campbell called for a ‘creative mythology’ that could become the structuring force of civilization – one whose core is not theological, but instead personal. In this creative story, we allow our experience to suffuse our being, to wait for its depth and import to arise through our understanding of events, to know out of what one has been in, not what one has been told. Through true revelation, an uncoerced discovery of our deep soul, Campbell says we become a living myth. In a world gone mad with killing over God, this secular yet inspiring philosophy might indeed preserve not only humans, but also the earth, which is being destroyed through our unconsciousness.

And so, dearest daughter, I would say spend all your learning becoming your self, and spend it too in the practice of courage and steadfastness it will take to hold your wild soul when others have ideas for you. Become the spiritual guide of knowing your own nature, and devote yourself to the unflinching task of serving it. For, whatever its name, or hue, or form, this soul will create the events of your life, and with it, you will be carried as a river is carried by its shore.


Thoughts influenced by Clarissa Pinkola Estes "The Red Shoes," and Joseph Campbell’s “Creative Mythology."

Monday, January 30, 2006

Say I Am Going Home

photo by John Cooper

On the last day in one of our temporary homes a package from my almost twenty-year-old daughter arrives. In it is a paper writ with scroll-embellished calligraphy. It says: “When I say I am going home, I mean I am going to where you are.” I draw in my breath. This has been the child who has had the most difficulty with being uprooted, mirroring my own ambivalence about being a gypsy. It’s been three years of traveling for us – from Seattle to California to France to another town in California, and now back to Seattle. It’s been three years where we’ve been choosing because of the Cancer, making the choices that could protect my husband while he recuperated, making choices that gave our daughter the opportunity to work with gifted voice teachers.

“I don’t know where I’m coming home to,” she said just before this Yule celebration, calling from her college apartment in snowy Indiana. “Sometimes you have to locate home within yourself,” I’d said. But then she knew I hadn’t grown up like that. She knew I’d left my childhood home as soon as I fell in love with a gangly boy-man at 17. I had located myself within his turbulent heart, and I’d stayed there mostly, venturing out for forays into Zen, brief flirtations with other men and women, writing retreats. He was my home so I could almost lose my mind talking with characters while a story formed. He was my home while I learned that I loved women, but not enough to live with them. He was my home while I almost drank to disappearance, and then reshaped my psyche by understanding what’s at stake in being true to oneself.

A therapist asked me once: “Do you think it might be dangerous to locate yourself within a man who has Cancer? I mean, maybe he needs his energy for his own healing.” And I hadn’t thought that I’d be a drain on him, that I’d be tiresome or depleting. I thought that he lived within me as much as I in him, but I’d never considered whether this was wrong. Because of his Cancer, and the inward river he had already set out on as he contemplated his second surgery, I started removing myself from him, piece by piece, a daily practice of energetic withdrawal. I stood by the shore while he drifted, silently floating toward some place I had never known, couldn’t envision.

It wasn’t until the surgery that his spirit had called me back. After the deadly cut that nicked his stomach and caused his insides to fill with blood, after they’d inserted the tube and begun bagging him to fill his lungs, after we’d all ridden down in the elevator to the second surgery of the night, I sat in the dark waiting room, its only sound the blaring of a television I was helpless to quiet, and chattered so loudly my teeth bit my tongue. My sister wrapped her arms around me to keep me warm, and still I shivered, my body inside his cold skin, offering my devotion, my radiance, my love. “I knew he was going to be okay because you suddenly shook me off and stood up, your chill finally resolved. I knew you were in there with him,“ my sister said, and I’d looked at her with such gratitude; my sister, the practical nurse who truly witnessed the unseen.

Three years later we did the unthinkable – we moved back to a place we had already been. We moved back because though we knew we were joined in Spirit, we had missing pieces that had to be completed by others. We had created a safe place to go out from for our daughter and our son, but we needed that for us too. My husband needed his patients, their ills and constraints, their sufferings and stories, so he could give back the healing that had been given him. I needed my writers, my dakini sisters, my adventurers, my soul friends. I say to them, the Seattle ones and the ones nearby, in Banff and Vancouver, “When I say I am going home, I mean I am going to where you are.”

Friday, September 23, 2005

Signs of Decay

“Somehow I want an answer from my grandmother that will keep me from having to endure these indignities of age; I not only want to grow old gracefully but like a fiery goddess, a fierce warrioress...”

She must turn over the ring marked 109 on the hook in the hall before eleven in the morning or else she will not be able to stay here. She will have died, or be ill, or require too much assistance for the modest apartment she moved to last year, after the priest bought the home she’d spent decades in, and flattened it to make a parking lot. Good riddance, my sister and I say every time we drive by the smooth concrete, the house’s hauntings having been responsible for the way the place hangs on us, claustrophobic as the Ohio river air, hot as biscuits on a summer day, the sky cloudless, windless, pale, closing in where it meets the land. Our grandmother is the only reason we will usually make the trip here, factories and fast food having replaced fertile farming land, tobacco leaves plowed under for a paper plant that belches chemicals that inflict new cancers upon the people of this southern town.

“My angel!” she declares when she sees me, as she will say many times each day in this week I have come to live with her, the greeting she has given me since I was born. She tells me she was afraid I wouldn’t come, was hoping I wouldn’t have changed my mind, and just when she thought I had, she’d called my sister who assured her I was on the road, tangling my way through the corn fields and cemeteries of the Midwest, driving slow, just as she’d prayed I would. I’d left the stately university town where I’d dropped my daughter off for college, and began the trek south, past the Bait N Tackle shops, the barbecue joints, the places that sell cheap cigs and sugar doughnuts.

The radio dial had drifted to songs that declare ‘Praise to the Maker’, and talk shows where an announcer proposed unlikely trades for merchandise no longer desired: “She will give up a cee-ram-ick nay-tiv-it-tee set for a baby guinea pig. Just call and leave a message.” There are long lawns with dozens of cars in various states of disrepair, and trim lawns with plastic deer lined up just so. There are women with fat bottoms hauling weeds out of the garden, and teenagers in aprons smoking at the back door of the diner. Every so often there is a downtown with a Denny’s, a Sears and a church sign that announces a Hog Roast on Sunday. I am driving to Owensboro, Kentucky, the town she and I were born in, her in the year 1919, and I forty years later. She has lived here most of her life, except for the disastrous year she spent with my mother in a Florida retirement village, ending in a rescue that returned my grandmother to her Kentucky home, after driving all day in a van with my sisters and I until her old, tired legs went out from under her.

I do not want to be from this place; it is insular and thick with tradition. I consider myself most unlike a Southern woman, but in the few days I spend with my grandmother, I notice myself in many of her habits. We reach for our lipstick at the same time after lunch; she tells me how to drive just like I instruct my daughter from the ‘back seat’; she likes to tell stories that grow strands then circle round and this is what I do for my work.

She clears her schedule with me right up front: there is a card game at six each night, and she is required to go, or else the girls will not like it and look elsewhere for a fourth; each day at ten there will be Bob Barker, the name she calls the game show, and she can go somewhere if I want to then, but she does adore her Bob: “He’s a legacy.” I assure her I can make do during those events. Our first morning together she sneaks out of bed early and tiptoes down the hall in her robe to turn ring 109 before anyone has stirred so she can go back to bed, sleep late, then lounge around in her chair, eating breakfast and yelling prices at Bob. I love a woman who can manipulate the system for her own purposes.

One day her friend Mary joins us for Bob. The old women slap their knees when a young person wins at Bob Barker, and they are silent during the bidding, whispering their mathematical calculations, then laugh uproariously when someone guesses the correct price and jumps up and down. “That girl’s about to lose her britches,” Mary says, and my grandmother nods her head because she can’t hear her words. “Ever price she got right, ever one,” my grandmother says, thrilled in the victory as if it were her own.

And I realize this is not unlike how I chatter with my friend Diana, roaring our approval for the little guy during some march we have just come from: “I just sobbed when I came around the corner and saw the Women In Black,” I told her a few weeks ago, the activist carnival our game show, the place we, at midlife, remind ourselves we are vital, purposeful, mentally acute. Like the women in front of the TV screen, I am safely ensconced as an anonymous protester – no pink or black dress for me, no commitment has yet led me from the sidelines.

My grandmother surprises me with what is left of her sense of adventure. When I return from making a telephone call the television is playing hip hop at full volume because she is half deaf, and she is peering into the screen from her lounge chair, trying to understand. “Oh, it’s Regis and Kelly,” she says, explaining her choice, “She’s a doll compared to that other one,” pursing her lips and wrinkling her nose at the thought of the former host.

Then there are clear signs we are born a generation apart. I sneak out one night during her card game to visit the bookstore, where I buy the magazine “Bitch” for my daughter: it is our back to school ritual. Somehow describing the irony of taking back the word as a feminist would be lost on my grandmother, and so I hide my counterfeit in the plastic bag, folding back its cover as I read.

I show her slide shows on my Mac, and she is shocked when photos we have taken the day before appear on the screen. She remembers when her daddy’s horse and buggy tilled the fields and a ‘pitcher’ pump bringing spring water to the kitchen was a luxury. She talks of being so fortunate that she had two bathing suits, “One red and one white!” though they were hand me downs from a friend who was “right well-to-do.” I think of the full media libraries, the closets of toys, the drawers of clothing our family has owned, and wished I would have come earlier to hear her stories, that somehow her humility could have saved me some emotionally driven consumption.

One day after I arrive we go shopping, something she usually only gets to do on a bus with the other old and disabled, in metered segments of time parceled out as if they haven’t got much of it: Wednesdays they go to Foodland; ‘The K-Mark’, as she calls it, is just once each month. When we go to the hardware store, she will not allow me to carry a ceiling fan she wants to buy, even when I tell her I lift weights each week, for fun. She sends me on a mission for light bulbs then gets the man behind the counter to place the box in the cart. “Naw, angel, you’re going to hurt your back,” she insists, as if she has a direct line to God on this. When we sit down to eat, I learn that with her tender teeth, and wavering grip, every meal takes an hour or more. Her hands get ‘knots’ in them, especially in the winter months, and it can bring her depression and seclusion. One Thanksgiving, my husband, whom she secretly loves best – “we know the suffering of losing our mothers young, angel” – made paraffin baths to restore her hands after we arrived and found her peeling back a fish can with pliers that shook with her tremors. I cleaned the kitchen while he lowered her fingers into warm wax, whispering soothing words to let her know she had been set free.

The week that I listen to her stories, sleep on a ‘pallet’ on the floor and run errands with her, I become more forceful in the presence of her fragility, as if this aging thing is contagious. She does not want me to lift a laundry basket full of linens, and I pitch it onto my hip, throwing open the door with a free hand. She grabs my arm: “Do you know that when I first came here I dragged that basket down the hall with a belt? I liked to pass out, and they had to bring me back to the room.” I remember when she ran a pizza restaurant on her own, grinding mountains of mozzarella, sliding dozens of pies out of a huge oven with a long handled paddle. She didn’t pick up a golf club until her thirties, when her children were in school, and within a few years she was winning tournaments. In photos of her as a young woman she had the stylish agility of a fashion model, a proud carriage born of the memory of an elegant mother who died when she was twelve, but whose recollection informed every decision, every vision for her own life.

She tells me strength comes from hard work, and that she insists on cleaning her own apartment, so she can keep what vigor she has. When I take her grocery shopping it takes her half an hour to move down one aisle, and she can make it up two full aisles before she is ready to go put her feet up. “There’s not enough spaces to sit down in stores, angel,” she says, “If I could just rest a while I would be okay to go again.”

In forty years this may be my body, and I am not thrilled with being reminded of its rapid decay. I have already spent weeks walking my chemotherapy-logged husband around a cancer ward, and each moment since has been a careful hedge against physical frailty. My kitchen drawers are full of medicinal teas, vitamins and herbs; my calendar is full of plans for the future; I have a list of countries to visit that ought to last into my nineties. Somehow I want an answer from my grandmother that will keep me from having to endure these indignities of age; I not only want to grow old gracefully but like a fiery goddess, a fierce warrioress, burning kinetic energy until one day well into the future, I spontaneously combust into flaming ashes.

She tries to help me as I prepare our last meal together, and then steps back, watching me multi-task: “My Lans, you sure can do everything!” she says as I move from counter to stove to toaster to ‘icebox’ in her tiny kitchen. When we sit down at her table, after a lengthy blessing in which she asks for my protection on my travels, she leans over and tries to raise her glass, then sets it down again. I have poured too much iced tea in it for her to lift. “The worst thing about getting old is that you can’t take care of yourself,” she says. “And the best thing? What is that?” I ask, really wanting something that will keep me from having to imagine her death, and my own. “Angel, the best thing is being closer to God. Even all the time I have to sit on the stool* I can be talking to the Lord,” she says as she leans in, lowering her voice as if she is giving me the goods: “You can talk to Him most any time and He will answer your prayers. Even though it looks like it is taking me so long to do these things, and I don’t like it, well, I am devoting that time to God.” I bend my head and kiss her beautiful, trembling fingers, then memorize her poise as she lifts her tea with two hands.

*toilet, for the non Southerners