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Archive for the ‘Healing’ Category

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letters and fragments from the dead

 

Writing is a moral act.

 

Ethics and the psyche are part of every letter that falls from the pen or emerges from a depressed key.

 

This is how we remember it: the shadow falling over the side of the mountain, the side we couldn’t see, and then the sun fell from view and the moon rose. It was almost the last quarter, the day before—we had looked it up—after the full moon, a Super Moon, the previous Saturday.

 

We had gone into a bookstore on our street and seen the newly published novel of a woman we knew years ago. There was a cat in the bookstore but we didn’t see her.

 

It was the first cool day, with heavy, dark clouds but it didn’t rain. We stood on the corner for an hour and a half talking.

 

The dead speak in words, too. They speak through us and with us. There is this life and, alongside, this death. They are wound together. The air is full of breath and unbreath. One time, there was a whole procession of the dead in front of me—they appeared as they would appear in a photograph, dressed up, wearing hats, dark clothing, and carrying bags and purses. Their eyes shone and they had come to talk to me, about becoming unwound from them, letting go, the ritual of unbinding. They said all they wanted was for me to live a free and happy life. They wanted me to let go of grieving for them and for me to know that my place was exactly where I was, not with them. Living for so many years with the dead, I could see them clearly and heard their words distinctly, as they were spoken. Then I wrote them down, here.

 

This day, Friday, was a release. I write for the dead who are long gone, and for myself. There are wings of insects inside me, gray in the light that comes in from the mouth, when it opens to speak, and the light in the middle of the forehead when it expands. Light comes in and the wings are translucent. I write for those who can’t speak and for myself, when I can’t speak. Writing out of the silence, of the silence, taking measurements for the words that will be written from one wall to the other, factoring in shadows thrown by figures that have emerged from the boundaries. Writing as a measurement of silence. Writing moves the water outside the window. Writing collects the dust and specimens from the floor and windowsill and chandeliers.

 

Writing is an act of solace, a movement from isolation to relationship, a knowledge of the world as of the body and nonbody—the corporeal and ghost. We are figures in the emerging dust—sun-day—measuring the tallest building against huts on the beach. Here are my words, and they come from my womb and my bones and my blood, and what I have held and what I hold and what I release. These are measurements as if for a dress or a suit. We know these clothes. We fabricate our stories in the threads and wear them out to important occasions. We have tea. We eat meals with strangers, half-smiling over our forks at half-formed structures behind their heads.

 

This Friday, this particular day, just was. In the being of the day, I could breathe, for once. Real breath that sustained me. Breath that filled the lungs and allowed me to sleep for the first time in weeks. This is the companionship of those who are always around. I found pieces of paper towel all over the house, on a nail, on a screw, behind the toothbrush holder, after she cleaned. They looked like white moth wings. I picked them up and threw them out, noticing their delicate texture and their beauty. There is wholeness that is found when more and more pieces come to us.

 

When was the first time we saw the invisible world? We saw its lights twinkle in deep blue, violet, light blue, Saturn red, Spring grass green. No real forms were present until our eyes adjusted to the eternal twilight. Maybe we were at the top of the earth, true North. We were at the place our souls brought us. Our souls, these creatures of the deep, dark terrarium we called consciousness. That which we were not aware of making hand shadows on the walls. Dictionaries of silhouette and semaphor. And upon arriving at our true North, their true shapes emerged.

 

“We are not shapeshifters in the way you are used to defining shapeshifters. The music is different here.”

 

 

 

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The sleeping dances with images of the Devil. The Tarot cards reveal what has not yet been fully understood. August light is hot and dense, usually—but this summer has been mild, with nights getting cool and we’ve been able to open windows. Insomnia is like this—a deep, dark devil that uncurls itself like smoke. Not invisible, it is seen by the naked eye and startles us as we drift off. This is part of the Dreamland.

 

Here is the part that floats—the burned part of the skin that becomes numb. This is from being hurt one too many times so that all the petals close tightly around the bud. There is still light. There is always light. We’ve learned this. Through weather and trees and autumn and summer and depression and grief. The light is always there.

 

We feel it in our thumbs, as we stretch out our hands after a long afternoon of writing. We visit the wild grasses in times of war. We know war in our bones, the way we know peace. The air is gray with anxiety and the clouds are heavy. The rain comes and lightning and thunder. For several hours in the morning, the sky is bright and baby blue, the color of an innocence that no longer exists in the human realm. But then we come back to the place where the soul starts, an overgrown path, thick with weeds and large, flat, round stones. We make our way through the tall and taller foliage, the leaves are glorious and lush and a shade of green from the time when the earth was just born. This is where the path starts. We hear the low moan of unknown animals.

 

This is the way the earth changes. The earth and the soul. The way the trees bow away from each other to let in viscous rays of sunlight. Honey-thick, they pour down through this newly discovered ancient forest as we get lost on the unmarked trails.

 

The war has ended in one place and begins in another. We are hopeful people. We begin again and again, in a state of peace. We continue to breathe as others cease. Their breaths become part of a blanket that is held between earth and sky, disintegrating into stars and blackness, the eternal dark spaces that hold death.

 

We open up into a noncorporeal form without form, just light. The light becomes brighter and brighter. We stay here, floating and emitting, for a while. Then we return to do our work on the earth.

 

There are three worlds, at least. There are many worlds. We live with our feet on the ground of the earth and our lungs breathing in the air of the heavens. The air of the atmosphere. We build things. We tear them down. We are our own history and everyone else’s. We share heritage and identity and we are our own heritage and identity. We come to a place where it is cold and no one is there. We light a fire on our own in the vast, horizonless tundra. It is 60 below. We have on a parka and the only part of our form that is visible is our eyes, full of warmth and humanity and sight. The fire is bright and warm. We connect with our own soul again.

 

We find a pattern in the snow, in the sand, in the dirt. We trace it with our fingers, with a stick, with a branch. We become fossils. We crumble into the earth. These are our graves. These are our graves, filling with dirt as the people above ground sing and pray. They will bring food they cooked to the house for a week. The family will look through a veil of grief that will then fall apart to let in some light. For a while, the curtains and shades will always be drawn. Then one day, someone will tie them back and pull the string to raise the olive green cloth into accordion pleats at the top of each window.

 

We find a way to hold death against the window as a silhouette, a paper doll taking the shape of the inanimate. The animate taking the form of the inanimate. Sleep taking the form of a kind of death, beating against the windows as rain, as tree branches, as wind. The dead communicating with the living. We drift off to sleep to the sound of cars on the streets outside, idling at the traffic light then engines starting up again, driving away in the direction that all sound moves, toward silence and the dimension that exists beyond human thought. The place where death and life are indistinguishable and we have a cup of coffee on the sandstone balcony overlooking all the cities that have ever been.

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The Living

 

 

When thinking about one’s personal memories, it’s hard to know which to keep inside, to one’s self, and which to write about so that they are out in the world, in a public manuscript, which could be read by others. I am specifically now recalling hanging out as a pre-adolescent in the apartment complex on the edge of the suburban township-Philadelphia city divide. I don’t remember the faces of my friends, the memories are dusky and unfinished, but with deep emotion and formative atmosphere, the kind of whole experience that subsumes itself into one’s being, one’s skin, and is developmentally integral.

 

 

I remember putting pennies on the train tracks and watching the trains barrel over the tracks, then picking the flattened copper disc off the hot tracks. The vibration of those hurtling trains, the stone steps overhung with fragrant honeysuckle, which we used to pick and from which we sucked out the sweet nectar. This was pre-sexual but desire and the awareness of boys rippled through my body. I was on the edge of adolescence, scrawny, fast, with preternatural energy and excitement about everything. One evening, the sky was just growing dark, and one of the older boys, Dan, sat with me on the steps of one of the apartment buildings in the complex. As we sat looking at the makeshift baseball diamond, he asked me if I knew what the bases were then proceeded to tell me what each of them represented in sexual terms. I don’t remember what I was thinking but I know now that he wanted to kiss me and I was blithely unaware. I got up and went inside to my apartment and don’t remember anything else about him. I remember I was reading The Outsiders just like we all were and I imagined our suburban apartment complex as the setting for The Outsiders and all of us as the characters. I remember our apartment being broken into and the police coming and covering everything with white dust, which looked so surreal, and the feeling of fear, but in a muted way. I didn’t really understand what had happened, and was just looking at the police go through the house, in their uniforms with heavy leather belts and guns hanging from holsters, and everything covered in haunting white powder.

 

 

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Are all of these potent and private memories to be kept to myself or is there some value and meaning in writing about them? The girl I was, the skinny, energetic girl who was full of movement and spark, she is important. Because a year later, everything would change for me. I would no longer be carefree and skinny. I would have breasts and hips that made my own body a hindrance to me, and foreign, somewhere I felt I didn’t belong, and I would go through a trauma that would stay with me for the rest of my life. The fact that these two monumental changes happened at the same time glued them together somehow, in a way I have been trying to pull apart for years. The trauma held in my body, as if burned into eternal form by volcanic ash.

 
The Dead

 

 

And now in New York. Walking in the South Slope in Brooklyn.

 

We are all apparitions. We carry the dead inside us. We take care of them. Following the road through the cemetery, we saw headstones and Celtic crosses, big mausoleum stone–the city of the dead overlooking the crazy New York skyline, as if all the souls wandering around are living. The city of the dead overlooking the city of the living. The winding footpaths and lush green of early summer grass–or late Spring, as we’ve been lucky this year to have some Spring–through these resting places. The names burn with the lives of those buried here. The hills of the cemetery. The blue sky and perfect white clouds after a week of thunder and rain. Pouring rain, pounding against the windows last night, furious and banishing all the old spirits who would take up residence here. Today, the helpful spirits were in attendance and walked with us. Such solace and soft footsteps they have, such grace and gentleness. The dead speak in whispers and contain everything, are everything, the roses in their blooming prime, the scent of them hallucinatory, another world created through the glass of the diner where we sat for hours because the waitress had forgotten our order.

 

The glass of the window looking out onto 5th Avenue like a mirror or telling glass—fortune-telling, spun from angels’ wings—through this glass, I had a déjà vu—and knew this was one of the moments of my life that was fated. But, in the absence of such direct experiences, the divine is always present. And in the ravel of experience, we glimpse beyond the glass another world that exists alongside this one, where the dead love us and watch over us and hold our dreams for us when we no longer can. Our strength returns and we remember who we are, the wind, the ground, the sunlight, the fury of the rain, and we return to ourselves. Our true selves, filled with light and power and connected to the divine. Able to recognize those divine souls that travel with us, that sew the cloth of our lives with us, those who see our souls and love us in all our anchors and jetties.

 

LadyLiberty

 

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I read a gorgeous article on Art Blart recently about the photography of Walker Evans. In it, he cites an article by Thomas Sleigh about Tomas Tranströmer, Too Much of the Air (see links below).

In it, Sleigh writes:

My first glimpse of Tomas Tranströmer was many years ago in Provincetown, Massachusetts as he ducked his head under the metal lip of a twelve-seater plane’s exit door, then stepped hesitantly down the stairs to firm ground. He seemed a little shaken, his long face blanched, his features reminding me, when I think of it now, of the circus horse in a late Bonnard painting: gentle, wary, potentially sad. “I don’t mind large planes or middle-sized planes (his English was slightly gutteral, his intonations lilting in a mild brogue), but small planes—you feel too much of the air under you.” That remark, direct, plainspoken, but also flirting with the metaphysical, has seemed over the years a keyhole into his work: a void; a sense of hovering above that void; the nerves registering each tremor with precision; the mind fighting back the body’s accelerating fear.

Thomas Sleigh’s article:

https://www.poets.org/m/dsp_poem.php?prmMID=19009 

Art Blart:

http://artblart.com/2014/02/20/exhibition-walker-evans-american-photographs-at-the-museum-of-modern-art-moma-new-york/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ArtBlart+Art+Blart

The void always there, hovering—our bodies.

And how, my whole life, I’ve been afraid of things being taken away. This is a pretty natural fear, primal, human, animal—everyone has a survival instinct for both themselves and whom they love. What made the difference in my life was that people told me this would happen. That I would lose everything and everyone. The way this was presented to me was that this was a fact. I was very young when people started telling me this. And as I write this, it sounds like the beginning of a good detective novel or a psychological thriller, exciting, terrifying in the way of terror when you’re lying cozy in your bed, reading or watching TV. But when people you trust tell you that what is happening on the screen will happen to you if you don’t do certain things, that you are patently unsafe because of who you are, who you were born, that instills a habitual terror that never quite leaves you. Or that you spend a lifetime confronting and healing, over and over again.

The body reveals what the conscious mind doesn’t.

My nerves fighting with the air: delicate underbelly, sky’s reaching. I was never certain what was air or ground. These are terrors, fully embodied, but unspoken for many years. And it is raining outside now.

Of course, it is not raining inside.

Get it down on paper. This refuses the chugging blood pressure as the plane soars upward.

The red brick of the brownstones. Rain comes down on snowed-in cars.

When days change you, you give them space, give yourself time and space around that day. I spent the next two days after lying in bed, watching TV and resting. The first day, I wash the dishes. On the second day, I take out the trash, clean out the fridge.

Some days change you. I bought a battery-powered radio with my uncle on Tuesday. I put it on the tray I have on the heater on the side of my bed near the windows. The seated painted-black Buddha is in front of it, along with a red velvet box containing condoms, earbuds for the Roku, and Chapstick, a tarot deck, four remotes, a coaster.

It has been a week of seeing behind the veil of things— one veil, plural things. Got my blood drawn for annual tests on Monday, went through old papers and calendars and maps belonging to my great uncle on Tuesday. Maps of Africa and Poland and Europe and Maine and Peak’s Island, where his son now lives, a lobsterman, and where he and two wives used to summer. We found Xeroxed, stapled papers with a typed family tree, done simply in Times typeface with lines and arrows, and going for maybe five pages, each generation going further into the present as we turned the pages. Along with this very basic family tree were some marriage records from Bialystok, Poland, and three handwritten pages in Polish, in beautiful script. Inscrutable because neither of us know Polish. Lists of things to do, to buy in his late wife’s handwriting, business cards, typewritten lists of her paintings, with name and price, letters from her gallery about sales, the letter from the gallery of two paintings sold at her last show, put on after she died. Letters from about twenty organizations, human rights, animal rights, environmental, asking for money.

The deep, good heart of my great uncle, the way he cares about the world, really made an impression on me. I’ll never forget it. I see my father in him, see where in the bloodline this connection to the world comes from, this faith that ties us all together within the same fate, animals, humans, continents, lands. This knowing I grew up with and never doubted that we are all one and, that if one suffers, all do. This has been in me since before I could articulate it. The week of lost things. Lost things returning. Things we don’t even know are lost. He warmed up coffee from the morning, left on the coffee maker, and turned the machine on to heat it up. It was very good, actually. Tasted strong. What a strange, strange world we live in and our lives, too, are weird because they’re so intense and overwhelming, we fade in and out of them, hallucinate, remember and experience at the same time—memory and history and the present all at the same time—my legs ached after a while, standing at the table we were clearing for hours. At some point, my uncle sat down, exhausted by the standing as much as the weight of history.

We had a beautiful conversation that lasted all day. We talked about insomnia and waking up in the early morning—he said he listens to the radio, BBC News, news from around the world, and it makes him feel connected, even though a lot of the news is sad and sometimes awful, it makes him feel like he’s not giving up on the world. I will remember this for the rest of my life.

As we do, we change. It is inevitable. It is this inevitability that moves us forward towards grasp and branch. The dusk of forefathers and foremothers. Where does it say that the window’s light is not the breath of land? We are the open of the land. We creature permanency. There is no permanent redaction of the past. It holds us, trembling, in its little-bird branches. We are sewn into it. Sunlight picks through the underbranches creating force and catapulting loss into new fields. These fields of light destroy. Packed-in dirt from centuries of war and blood cold now, Addresses of the Wild Permanency, home now. We are not dead. We have lived with the dead for too long now. We let them go into a place we can’t follow. We look after them, as they blend into the surroundings, becoming less and less physical, to abandon all light by becoming part of the light. These creature-fields.

We are torn apart by light. We are torn apart by war.

We taper like candles.

Things have been really intense lately. Coming boom boom boom. Like firecrackers, leaving me deaf and blind for moments after the blasts, seeing rings and stars. Quavering and indulging in solitude. Processing or, more accurately, letting be what life is. Minutes pass gently, in relative silence. The rain helps. Opened all the windows and let in the fresh, clear air. Spring is coming!

Life is changing shape again. Shapeshifting. It does this. And every time, I’m sad, I resist, I feel such a deep sense of loss that I think I’ll fall into it. It’s hard, these changes. A lot is lost. Illusions, relationships, ways of seeing myself and the world. Right now, I’m at the beginning, or maybe the middle, of acceptance. I’m aware and I accept that certain things will never be the same.

Maybe this pain leads me again to where I need to go. Maybe with this mouth—with this dream—expressed without malady.

I’ve lost so much. Sometimes it seems everything is loss. The sky protrudes with it, the belly bloats with it, the speaking crows rebel into flock-dragons in a separating sky—where all separates into light and dark and the divine opens into itself, the huge mouth of destiny. I build and build and long periods of tearing down. I try to build things steady and strong, with brick-and-mortar foundations—all of this is impermanent and breaks my heart over and over again. Flocks of seabirds, city birds. The kiss is fleeting. Lips touch and fade. Bodies come together and break apart. This is what happens. A simple fact. All of this is certain. There will always be loss. But of the times in between that loss, the brightness is almost blinding. Loss and brightness make a whole—sweet as an egg—nest—

Poem or prose, it comes out the same. I’ve realized this, after months of writing against my natural grain—or what I thought was against—in sentences, that sequester lines—the problem is not form, but truth—where truth holds banister and crows—but the windows hold strong, the glass is steady in them, when it rattles, the wind always coming—I still have a house—language.

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Dark, Terrifying Places, and What I Learned from Leonora Carrington, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker and Emily Dickinson

 

To know that human beings can do evil to each other almost breaks my faith over and over again. The almost is pivotal. Part of faith is doubt and to face this is important. The paradox of beauty and terror is something I wrestle with on a regular basis. This seeming impossibility of two powerful forces calls into question all of my beliefs about humankind. To accept that there are people who can do such horror is beyond comprehension, but also, I am drawn to trying to understand.

 

For me, it was learning about the Holocaust that triggered the all-too-human terror that exists in all of us. The specific trigger is important up to a point. What matters and what lights our way along this very dark path of navigating fear is that we all feel this, we all struggle with mindless horror, and our stories all contain a memory, a trauma, an experience that stays with us throughout our lives and makes us confront our startling vulnerability and mortality. How we move through this fear, this grief, this anger, this desire for things to be different than they are defines us—we develop survival mechanisms, avoidance techniques, addictions, and also courage, strength and a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of the human race on this earth at this time.

 

Just before beginning my adolescence, I found out about the Holocaust. Not only did I find out about this horrific history, it was told to me in a barbaric and traumatic way that would haunt me for the better part of my adolescence and twenties. I was away from home for the first time, at summer camp. That same summer, my best friend decided to be best friends with another girl in our grade and left me alone, lonely and alienated, during this time when I desperately needed comfort and love. The fear and despair this all instilled in me was potent, a deep trauma that I have spent a lifetime healing. There was something of that fear that became a fear of being who I am inside, deeply, as a human being, as a living creature. This was my first intimacy with suffering.

 

For most of my pre-adolescence and into my teenage years and my twenties, I was obsessed with tragedy. I read countless books about the Weimar Republic and World War II, looked at photographs that Lee Miller took after the war, read about families that saved other families, tried to understand how this genocide of so many could happen. This dovetailed with my fascination with and adoration of tragic heroines, those women who suffered at the hand of fate and created art that was so beautiful, it set the world on fire. The fire was bright and its sparks cascaded down to earth in a silent parade of the invisible, of those who were erased, who disappeared and then reemerged in a torrent of color and dream, pain transformed into beauty.

 

Leonora Carrington’s paintings and life encapsulated all of this, her and Max Ernst’s tragic love and the deepest suffering that she bore and couldn’t bear anymore and went mad and then lived a long, long, long life after tragedy and the war, during which she continued to make sculptures and paint and set the world on fire with her beautiful creations, with her beauty. I bought tons of gorgeously plated art books on the women Surrealists and read the work of the male Surrealists, because at that time, I couldn’t get my hands on the women’s work. Then I discovered Mina Loy, who shone like a newly discovered planet in the solar system. She was my lighthouse through my twenties. She also had a tragic love life.

 

This obsession of mine with women artists who all seemed to have tragic love lives started with Emily Dickinson, whose love life can be seen as tragic, but that is not the way I see it. She made a decision to remain unmarried at a time in which that was virtually unheard of and created her life around her passion. This is not tragic. So first there was Dickinson, then Loy, bringing me to a center of my soul I had never known before. They made their own language. Then there was Carrington, whose characters and surreal settings in her paintings were like the images in my imagination and dreams. They were my soul mates and guides at a time when I did not know either of those existed.

 

In my second stint at college, I read Lorine Niedecker. Her poems and life story hit me the hardest. I cried my way through the entire semester, reading her poems, so bare and lonely and real. There was a truth in them that I had never confronted, that love and loneliness go together, that we are all alone in our deepest struggles, and that nature feels this with us, feels this for us. And that words are incantations, calling forth the hidden spheres with their music and plea.

 

Natural Light

 

These women taught me how to be myself. They taught me that feeling pain is okay. That there is beauty in the world and in the darkest times. This saved me and continues to save me. Being able to write and draw (I drew many pictures of trees and birds, sitting alone and quiet in the woods) and have hope was life-affirming and strengthened me in ways I didn’t even know at the time.

 

I think about how all of these women had tragic love lives. The four women I admire most in the world of art and language. Does that mean anything? In my time now, I don’t think so. But I used to. Those definitions of being a woman artist. What does that mean for your personal life? I used to think it meant a lot of things, including the necessity to endure pain and live a life of extended monologue superimposed on passionate dialogue, neither of which were clear or understandable. I used to think it meant being alone. At the same time, I thought it meant having an intense love affair that included bonding on a bone-soul level so that our bodies and hearts and minds were subsumed ecstatically in each other. This electric bonding happens, chemical, whatever else bonds one to another in passion.

 

Now things have evened out—I trust myself to be in a committed relationship with a man without losing myself. This has been hard-won. Crazy hard-won, as the forces exerted on women and men to lose themselves are volcanic and atmospheric. And human. What it has taught me above all is that I can survive and endure, feel deep pain and face the world, myself and others, with truth and courage. And that I can make beauty out of all of it.

 

The darkest time in my life led me to discovering the deepest beauty and courage and hope. There is hope in our actions, in our creations, in our compassion and love.

 

I have no answers to the paradoxes. I have learned to balance opposing forces for small amounts of time, struggling with them, accepting them, fighting against the darkness, entering the darkness. I have trained myself to keep coming back to that part of myself that tells me the truth. What am I feeling right now? Is this true? This is core awareness, the center of my daily life. Within this is love and washing dishes and feeling lonely and feeling cranky and being mad and ecstatic and in love and the outside world and the inside world and writing and lights.

 

All of it matters. The strange beauty and terror of life right now, right where we are.

 

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I was told for many years, by many people, that I wouldn’t survive. There was no doubt I wouldn’t make it. I wasn’t safe where I was, ever. When identity is based on this kind of fear, how do we move through this to a place of power? I have spent my life trying to answer this question, as well as many other questions associated with the discovery that there are horrific events in our world. What do we do with that knowledge? How do we continue to live, to survive? How do we deal with the guilt of being survivors in a world where so many of us don’t make it? These questions create a gravitational center from which radiate the many aspects of truth that make up the circumference of meaning. The meaning is not found in answering the unanswerable, but in asking the questions over and over again.

 

The nature of fear is to consume. It’s like a flame. A flame can be destructive or life-giving.

 

I have come to learn that my fear has saved me as many times as it’s brought me to my knees.

 

I have brought this fear, a fear I know intimately, like the palm of my hand, with its many deep lines—the palm readers say I will have a long, interesting life—with me everywhere I go. It is with me when I sleep. It protects me and knows me like a lover. Of course it does, because it sleeps next to me every night. This fear sits next to me when I eat, follows me into the restaurant when I am meeting friends, orders coffee at the end of the meal. For a long time, my fear stood outside my writing—I could not even bear to bring them together in a conscious way. But, little by little, my fear started to inform my writing, make it face itself, make me face my own darkness in words, made me have a conversation with it through my writing.

 

This allowed for a third ghost to enter the picture—a witness. I became my own witness to my thoughts, sensations, beliefs, and stories about Fear.

We don’t just want to write something good. We want it mean something. One of the scariest things is to think none of what we do matters. Writing is about connecting—to ourselves, others, the place where body and mind meet, our own stillness and silence that is part of the world’s stillness and silence, from which strength and courage and truth and love come in unlimited supply. To touch that, even for a moment, with our writing, with words, actions, intentions, is meaningful. Every second we experience our lives is meaningful. We deepen our own awareness into acknowledgment of that meaning—it is a task, every day, to do that.

 

Meaning is the antithesis of fear.

 

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I’m worrying a lot right now about being honest in what I write. So much is coming up for me and it all feels so raw. I want to write about it but it feels too scary. I can barely talk about it.

 

I can barely talk to people who’ve known me my whole life, who know me and know this fear, know my fear.

 

And I realized that that’s exactly the place to start, so I start at the not being able to talk about it, what that feels like, that place between feeling and expression.

 

That is part of the fear—and the freedom.

 

I want so much to be free. To feel free and safe. I want this for everyone in the world.

 

It shouldn’t be so hard to feel safe and that has created a grief that has been inside me for as long as I can remember.

 

We want to be known. And we want others to be known. We are fierce, fearless creatures who inhabit a haunted, beautiful, scary world.

 

When we know our own personal fear, it’s a weird intimacy, because we know it, we sit there with it, watch TV or read, or do the countless tasks we do throughout our day and night, we sleep, wake up at 3 in the morning, and there it is, the fear, sitting on our chests like an animal from another realm. So we know it, it’s like a friend coming to visit, but it’s a friend who talks to us about all of the things that haunt us and upset us and scare the crap out of us. And we sit and have coffee with our friend, who’s listing all of the catastrophes and tragedies of all time, because fear is timeless, isn’t bound by time, so it knows everything about every horrible thing that’s ever happened in the history of all humanity and all life and all death and all of the extinctions and all of the genocides and wars, and we’re sitting there on the couch, drinking our coffee and wondering whether or not to offer coffee to this friend, who says they’ve traveled for miles to see us, but we know they live next door or in our bathroom or in our bed. And they know every inch of us, everything that makes us exhausted with fear, just totally tired, but talking with them and hanging out with them makes us feel better in a way, because it’s a conversation between a witness and a child, or a witness and a scared adult, or a witness and fear itself. And this is the way we face fear.

 

*

 

This winter, the weather is haunted. We watch as snow piles up on our windowsills and presses against the screens. We watch the weather reports, 10 degrees, 20 feels like summer.

 

*

 

Just as I’m getting used to appearing and reappearing, I disappear again into fear. Fear takes hold of the mind and the body responds, the chest tightening, lump in the throat, thoughts darting around like hunted things, blind and terrified. Fear is not easy. It’s not rational and, while it can be attacked somewhat rationally, there is an element of it that is like the center of a flame, unreachable and primal. The need for safety is universal, as is the instinct for survival. When these are threatened, fear digs in and constricts a wider view—whether the danger is real or imagined. What is the way out of this?

 

When we are in the midst of it, feeling the constricted pattern of the fear, thinking, writing, muttering, talking through the fear we’re feeling, then sitting silent as stones, we somehow, through all this, move past the paralyzing stage of the mind playing out scenarios that seem as real as the room we’re in.

 

My Buddhist teacher says to ask, is this scenario in my mind real?

 

When we are afraid, the lines become murky and foggy between what we’re afraid will happen or is happening and what is really happening. It’s easy to convince oneself of the worst. We don’t know how to polish things up and end writing or end a trail of thought or conversation with some kind of flourish or optimism or something to turn to or lean on—courage is the ability to come back to and be present in the room. We are in the room or park or supermarket, we know and are aware that our bodies are here right now and we can be witnesses to the mind tightening in the grip of terror. Trying to be as present as possible and name things: I am feeling terrified and scared and unsafe. My chest hurts. My heart is beating fast and then it’s barely beating. My breath is shallow.

 

And that is all there is, until the next moment.

 

*

The way time moves. On certain days, it dictates. On others, it runs smoothly parallel to the mind, to the beating heart. And we don’t wait for things, we feel time as a gentle presence and boundary that moves things along like breath and baking, heating up leftovers, resting. This is resting, when time moves like this, when we are aware of it like this.

 

Resting in the discomfort, in the fear, we open up space. We see and feel ourselves standing in a field with weeds and visual access to the horizon. We can breathe.

 

*

 

The winter hopes. It is long. I am tempted to pull out the string in the back of it to make it speak or tell fortunes. Where is it that we leave our playthings when childhood is taken from us like specks of dust in the light as the light thins and then disappears altogether? We’re haunted, all of us, by this dimming light. Sometimes the haunting has words, unintelligible and in different languages, their sound lilting or suspicious or frank. The dotted lines marking the map to oblivion. The chest pounds. We are all afraid of what might happen, and we drown ourselves in the aftermath of probability—how many scenarios of the Apocalypse, of the impending destruction of our perfumed lives can we view, as if on a screen, before we listen to our hearts beating, right now, inside of us, and acknowledge life is this? Life is the beating heart, the fast or slow breath, the tired muscles in our legs as we walk at the end of the day, the energy we have for those we love, we keep going, going, in spite of fear, of harsh predictions.

 

This evening I allowed myself to feel empty and spacious, having no plans for the rest of the week save one dinner. This isn’t rare for me. I try to keep an open schedule so I have space and time for myself and writing. For myself to just be, in unscheduled time, and for my mind to be at rest, or to be reading, or thinking in a spacious way as to allow new thoughts to come in. And tonight, I was reading a bit and watching Endeavour, and taking breaks to just walk around my house and drink water and pet the cats, and I felt empty and peaceful. And then a tinge of restlessness. Rustled the water a little. The clear lake becomes the tiniest bit murky as the silt is stirred up, the undersurface of the water. And I decided to call my great uncle and check on him in this cold and made a time to see him this week. I understood even more clearly than I had that giving myself this space and not just filling hours with work or TV or social engagements lets what is truly important rise to the surface so I can then take right action. It is a deliberate result.

 

*

 

There is a deeper peace, and a deeper silence. From out of this acceptance as things are arise right ideas.

 

*

 

Reading The Hunger Games as Katniss drops honeysuckle nectar on her tongue, this visceral memory comes back to me of my pre-adolescent body and what it felt like— energy coursing through me, through my muscles— everything bright and new, glistening, reflecting sunlight, bright, bright sunlight, and being excited about everything—  my best friend Sherri’s apartment, and her mom, who was a single mom, and the peacock-back wicker chairs… I remember the apartment complex we lived in and the honeysuckle that grew by the train tracks and the smell of the honeysuckle and eating it and hanging out with a group of boys and girls whose names I don’t remember and flattening pennies on the tracks. This feeling of being in my body, part of nature, and city, being outside in the air.

 

*

 

Maybe what I think of as claustrophobia in a place of fear is actually closer to freedom than I think. I think it is a cramped room. I think it is a place from which I can’t escape. But the very experience of fear makes me human. The struggle with all of this makes me human. The fact of the struggle, this medium or median translating dust and fog into constellations— that is purpose and meaning. And does this give rise to hope? Does it create fertile conditions for hope and presence to grow? Maybe it does. Maybe the sensations and thoughts and visceral experience of being afraid and staying there for one second, with the tight chest and barely beating heart and stopped breath, create freedom.

 

In the end, we don’t know. We are tired from not sleeping enough or waking up too early, in the dark, unable to get back to sleep. So we wander in the darkness of our houses, before the sun has come up, to boil water in old kettles. And now I am thinking— I really should replace my old beige kettle. I want a bright red kettle, not bright in shade, but a rich, deep red. We make coffee. This is the promise of a new day. We begin the movement forward, in time, of this day. Time moves and seems to splinter, burns together, when we focus on what we’re doing, and maybe we get satisfaction from that. And these moments are blessed and whole. We embody them.

 

I have stayed in my house for two days because it is so damn cold. I really need to get over it. I need to go out. Then, the next day, I go out. It takes half an hour to get ready, put on all my layers. I have lunch at my favorite diner. They are playing Men at Work, and people are talking, and there are coats, scarves, hats piled everywhere. I see a friend from the food co-op as I’m leaving. I go buy some coffee and salad greens. I come home and take off my wet boots, my sweater, my second shirt.

 

Over the weekend, I go out and walk along the park and take pictures. I take off my gloves to hold the camera and my fingers freeze. My thighs are numb. The park, the trees, the monuments around the entrance to the park at Grand Army Plaza are ghostly. I take pictures of the ghosts. The trees are thin-limbed, their dark branches bones against the silver-gold of the sky. The sun is magical, bright behind the veil of winter. When I come home and look at the pictures I’ve taken, they are of another world. They are beautiful, and make visible the line between worlds.

 

This is freedom. I am completely entranced in the magic of winter.

 

 

 

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This is part 2 of a series. 

2

The infected root canal was a ridiculously minor trigger, but as a tipping point it definitely had its precedents.

On May 25th, 2010 (the same day I had a flarf poem published in the Wall Street Journal —  yes, a flarf poem in the Wall Street Journal!) I received news that my Fulbright Specialist candidacy was about to move to the next, much-desired, level: a school had requested me.  I would be teaching in a small town in Russia called Orsk, on the border of Kazakhstan, thirty miles west of Siberia.  On my original grant application I was asked to pick two global areas where I’d prefer to teach, and I chose Eastern Europe and Asia.  Teaching in Orsk would be a dream gig because of its location on the Ural River, across which stretched a famous bridge with signage indicating “Europe” on the western side and “Asia” on the eastern.  I was ecstatic, and started making preparations, even though I wouldn’t be traveling for a year: I researched Orsk, Siberia, got a Rosetta Stone Russian course, began formulating my lecture series and started drinking vodka to raise my admittedly wimpy (for a writer with an Eastern-European ancestry) tolerance for the “little water.”

By September, though, the details of the gig began to get convoluted and the preparations frustrating.  First, the date of my teaching stint, agreed upon by the school and myself, had to be moved up (the wording on the grant summary regarding the start date wasn’t very clear), and so instead of traveling to Orsk in April, I’d be going in mid-February — yes: almost-Siberia in February.  Next, my travel agent refused to sell me a plane ticket because she didn’t think flying over the Ural Mountains in the dead of winter on a regional airline she’d never heard of before was safe.

“And they just had that big Aeroflot disaster,” she whispered, “right over the Urals . . .”

Her voice put the fear in me for the first time.  It felt like a cold fluid moving quickly up my spine and spreading out inside my brain – the first presentiment of the anxiety that would soon take over my life.  I seriously decided (for about ten seconds) that I would tell my American program officer, Alice, that I couldn’t reschedule for February because my school wouldn’t allow it.  But who turns down a Fulbright?  Riddled with anxiety but determined, I explained the situation to the school, and found a Russian travel agent by half-jokingly asking the students in my fiction workshop (on the day that a tornado touched down in Brooklyn, by the way), “Anybody know a good Russian travel agent?”  Not only did someone have a ready answer, but the agent she knew turned out to be a practicing Buddhist.  I had taken refuge as a Buddhist the year before, after my sister’s death, and so I figured this was a sign — not only would everything work out, it would work out Buddhistically!   But it took the agent, Izabell, a week and a half just to get a purchase confirmation for the plane tickets — she’d actually tried to buy them when she was in Moscow — and I spent my 50th birthday anxious and worried that the whole thing might fall through, but trying not to dwell on it because I was on a three-day silent retreat at a Zen monastery with my husband.  Things got even more complicated when I got back: my Russian program officer, Natalya, mentioned in an email that the school I was to teach at, a local branch of a state university, hadn’t gone through the proper channels or done the proper paperwork to procure a Fulbright Specialist, and that was why, a month before my scheduled departure, the “Letter of Invitation,” which I needed in order to apply for a business visa, still hadn’t arrived.   Visa processing, I learned, could take up to eighteen business days, and the Russian Embassy would be closed for the first two weeks of January, for Orthodox Christmas.  Natalya told me not to wait, but to just go ahead and apply for a tourist visa instead.  “At least it’ll get you into the country,” she wrote in an email.  I took her advice, but when the school found out I had a tourist and not a business visa they said I couldn’t legally teach  — or even stay — on the campus.  When I put the emails between Natalya and my contact at the school in Orsk through Google Translate (Natalya hadn’t bothered to delete them) I discovered the only place I’d be allowed to stay legally was “the infirmary” of the campus sports complex. I’d already spent a considerable sum on warm clothes appropriate for a Russian winter (not reimbursable by Fulbright) and the Rosetta Stone course (also not covered).  And then there were the five months spent researching and writing my ten lectures on “What American Literature Shares With the World”  — and how was that time to be adequately reimbursed?  When the letter of invite finally did arrive — a week before my departure — David suggested that I say nothing about it; if they didn’t know I had it, I wouldn’t have to go.  But, again: who turns down a Fulbright?

“I’ve known you for twenty years,” he said, “and I’ve never seen you this anxious. I thought this was supposed to be a positive experience.  Are you just doing this to have something to put on your CV?”

At this point, yes, I thought, as there certainly was no joy left in the project.  On the other hand, I didn’t want my five months of preparation to be for naught, so I applied for the expedited $350 business visa (also not covered by Fulbright, per policy), which wouldn’t be ready until the day before my departure.  Izabell, sensing how stressed-to-the-breaking-point I was, suggested that I go with her to her weekly meditation session and dharma talk with a well-known expatriate Tibetan monk, Pema Dorje, on the Lower East Side.  I agreed, and we met for dinner before the session at an Indian restaurant on First Avenue.

I’d never met Izabell, only talked to her on the phone.  She had a soft, measured, thoughtful voice.  And so it was a delightful surprise when a gorgeous, dark-haired woman my age (her birthday, in fact, fell on the same day as my sister’s death), entered the restaurant in a swirl of beige and ivory wool scarves and delicious perfume, and embraced me like a long-lost friend.

“I was thinking,” she said as we sat down, “when I was driving here — and I drive from New Jersey, so I have lots of time to think — that I just do not understand why you’re having so much trouble with this.  When I travel to Russia with my husband — he’s American — they treat him like the Dalai Lama or something.  They fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other to make an impression on him.  And this is a government agency?  There’s something wrong here.  Can you back out?  Or will you lose all your money?”

“At this point,” I said, “I don’t even care about the money.  It’s the time.  I have literally spent every day — almost all day — for five months writing these lectures.  I can’t just give up, with all that behind me.  I could’ve been writing other things.  But there I was, you know?”

She sat back in her chair, and looked at me intently through narrowed eyes.

“Okay, listen: after the dharma talk, and when the meditation is concluded, I’m going to introduce you to Pema and we’re going to ask his advice.  He is very wise.  He’ll tell you what to do.”

The dharma talk took place on the third floor of an unprepossessing walk-up on First Avenue and Second Street, next to a McDonald’s.  Who knew that secreted away in that dull grey building with the fire escape on the front was a shrine room decorated with icons and thangka paintings, a tall, golden altar at its center? As I got comfortable on a cushion on the floor next to Izabell, seven or eight people came in, greeted each other with bows, settled onto their meditation cushions and waited until tiny Pema Dorje entered and began the session.  After the meditation we chanted prayers, and then Pema gave a light-hearted talk about the significance of the night’s new moon.  When the session concluded, Izabell took me by the hand and introduced me to him — he was no taller than my shoulder — and explained my situation.

“Ah, you know,” he laughed, mischievously, “we always fear our obstacles, don’t we?  We want to fight them — overcome them!  But our obstacles are also there to teach us.  You understand?”

“Yes,” came a deep male voice from somewhere behind me, “obstacles have often saved my life.  Pay attention to your obstacles.”

“That’s right,” a woman said, from another corner in the room.  “Your obstacles are serving you.”

Again, the cold fear up my spine.  But still, and even against the advice of a monk (and everyone else in that room, it seemed), I remained determined.

At the eleventh hour, the school in Orsk generously agreed to pay for my expedited visa, and as our plane skimmed a patch of very Russian-fairy-tale-looking snow-tipped fir trees near Sheremetyevo Airport, I was relieved and ecstatic to actually be in the country with David by my side (traveling at his own expense, to make sure I actually got there).  We checked into our hotel in Moscow — a Marriott! — and took a nap.  Afterward, refreshed and happy and looking forward to seeing some of Moscow before dinner (despite the 10 degree temperature), I got into the shower and promptly slipped and hit my head on the back of the porcelain bathtub.  I didn’t see stars, didn’t lose consciousness, but the pain was incredible.  When David called Natalya, my program officer, to get a reference for a doctor, she told him rather diffidently there were a couple of clinics I could go to, but didn’t provide phone numbers, or any Embassy or Consulate medical contacts.  I wasn’t surprised, actually; this was the same woman who’d instructed me to get the wrong visa.

“She’s no help,” David said, disgusted.  “I’m going down and asking at the desk.”

The hotel concierge, more helpful, called the paramedics, and they came to my room — a thin, dour, Harry Dean Stanton-looking man, and a husky, efficient woman — and checked me out: it didn’t look like I had a concussion, but I’d have to watch for symptoms (nausea, headache, vomiting) during the next twenty-four hours.  Naturally, Natasha Richardson came to mind.  The woman touched the bump on the back of my head and declared, gently, “маленький” (“small”). As I signed my name in Russian on the medical report I asked (via the hotel translator) if they thought I’d be okay to fly to Orsk the next morning.  The woman laughed and said (via the translator), “If you can sign your name in Russian you’ll probably be okay!  But just keep watch over yourself, especially if you have symptoms.”

The flight to Orsk the next morning was at 6 a.m., and at 6 a.m. I was, of course, in the cab en route to Domodedovo Airport with David.  The concierge packed our complimentary breakfasts up in plastic “lunch boxes,” so we’d have something to snack on while we waited at the gate.

“So where are you traveling to so early in the morning?” she asked, cheerfully.

“A place you’ve probably never heard of, even though you’re from here.  It’s called Orsk, and it’s right above Kazakhstan.”

“You’re right,” she laughed, “I don’t know it.  But I do know that it’s very, very far.  Very far, indeed.  So be careful, you know, because of your head.”

Her words so did not offer comfort, and the familiar chill arose.  And halfway to the airport I began feeling nauseous and headachey.  And panicky.  There was no way to tell if it was because of what the concierge had said, the overheated cab, the lack of a proper breakfast, an attack of nerves about flying over the Urals in the dead of winter on a regional airline that my travel agent mistrusted, Pema Dorje’s advice, or because I really did have a concussion. I looked at David and said, “I really feel sick.  I don’t know what to do. What the hell am I going to do?”

“Alright, I’m putting a stop to this nonsense right now,” he said, and the decision to turn back was made, on that dark, empty, snowy Moscow highway.  Natalya had never suggested helping me reschedule my flight so I could rest up for a day, so I knew that turning back would be forfeiting a Fulbright — the thing I most did not want to do, the one thing I had pushed and pushed against for all those months.  After we arrived back at the hotel and rebooked our room I called Natalya to tell her what happened.  She was sympathetic but not helpful, though she did suggest I try to get a free dinner from the hotel since I had fallen in their bathtub.  When I told her I didn’t feel right doing that she said, “Yes, they are probably accustomed to American tricks.”  We flew back to the States the next day and the day after that I saw my doctor.  Everything seemed okay by then.

Disappointed but resigned that the Fulbright was obviously never meant to be, but happy to have five months of pressure and worry behind me, I got back to what I’d been working on before I’d had to spend every spare moment on grant preparations: a very emotional  “prose poem story” about my sister Renee’s death in November 2009. On Wednesday, February 16 I read it at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan.  The response from the audience was unexpected and overwhelming, and some people came up to me with tears in their eyes.

“I envy your ability to expiate,” one friend — a journalist-commentator for National Public Radio — said.  It had been immensely difficult to write, and twice as difficult to read in public, as I was revealing the secret that lie at the core of my family’s own “breakdown”: that my father might’ve molested my sister.  Back in 1984 I walked in, after work, on a “family meeting” that she’d called, to make her announcement.  (Why did she do it while I was out of the house? I always wondered.)  Renee and our parents had been sitting around the kitchen table, and as I walked in the door my mother had said, “Your sister says Dad molested her when she was little.”  The discussion ended with her saying that it actually never happened.  Later, I told my parents I didn’t believe it, and I told Renee that I did.  Because I had seen something, when she was eight and I was ten, that had remained with me: as I was coming into the living room from the hallway I saw Renee and my dad on the couch, and he was whispering into her ear.  She had an odd, unidentifiable look on her face, a combination of boredom and annoyance.  Our dad was always sneaking up behind us and saying “Boo!” or whispering goofy things in our ears like, “Hey, how did that wheelbarrow get up there?”  There was no way of knowing what was happening, so I stopped and tip-toed backward to the bedroom and sat on the bed, scared.  As an adult I couldn’t help but wonder if molestation was the reason, along with abandonment by her birth mother (Renee had come to us as a foster child in 1968, and we adopted her two years later), for her nightmarish life of addiction and homelessness.  She’d died in a nursing home, and I didn’t find out until three days later, by which time one of her natural sisters, with whom she’d been reunited years before, had had her cremated.

The evening after the reading, while eating granola cereal before bed, I felt a sharp pain in my tooth.  I knew I’d probably broken an old filling.  The next day I went to my dentist, and she said I’d fractured the tooth and would need a root canal, which she wanted to begin right then.  I have no idea why, but I asked her if it could wait until Monday — I needed to take antibiotics before dental work because of a mitral valve prolapse diagnosis.  I don’t know why she didn’t just write me a prescription, have me fill it at the drugstore down the street, pop two pills and get back in the chair — maybe she had appointments the rest of the day.  Whatever, she said she’d see me on Monday and to take ibuprofen if the pain got to be too much.  And it did indeed get to be too much because she never told me how much ibuprofen I could take.  As I drove to our house in Pennsylvania on Route 80 a day later the pain was overwhelming; it was that singular, nightmarish, deeply acute dental pain that feels like the suffering of all beings focused tightly on one tooth.  When we got to the house David called the dentist’s office and spoke to her partner, who gave me better directions regarding dosage.  Finally, with a combination of 3 Advils and deep breathing, it abated.  The procedure commenced when we got back to the city that Monday.

By Wednesday I noticed that the lower left side of my face was swollen, but figured it was because of the root canal. I called the dentist to ask her what the best way to bring the swelling down might be because I was starting to look like the Lady in the Radiator from “Eraserhead” (at least on the left side).

“The swelling is on the bottom?” she said, sounding surprised.  “Well, it’s probably infected.  Can you come in now?  I have no appointments the rest of the day.”

And that was what set the two-year breakdown off, at about 2:30 in the afternoon on March 23, 2011.

Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.

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