“I gift you with healing and magic.” —Sister Faye Mermaid
“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” —Rainer Maria Rilke
I’ve been thinking about gifts today. And trials. Reality. And monsters.
What is real? What is true? What must we endure and what must we overthrow?
I don’t believe in suffering for the sake of suffering. Of course we suffer. That is a given. But why cultivate it? And because someone suffers they are not holy, good, or divine. Suffering does not make us better. Lordy, no. Does suffering hone us? Make the sword that is us tougher, more magical, more efficient?
I don’t know. I’m not a sword. I’m a human being.
If I suffer, if something bad happens to me, I am not a better human being. I’m just a human being who has suffered.
Maybe it depends upon what kind of person one is when something terrible happens. If it comes as a surprise, if it is totally and wholly unexpected suffering, perhaps we can’t rise above it. Get over it.
I had a remarkably fortunate childhood. I was bonded to the land more than I was ever bonded to any human being. I watched for messages from the skies as I dug my bare toes into the damp earth. I fed the animals, wild and tame. I ran with the wild things.
My mother broke when I was quite young, and she never recovered. Neither did we. Is the soul of a family always the mother? As she goes, so goes the family?
I don’t want to go there. Why? I find psychology tedious--watery--and not in a good way. I’m too old to be buffeted by childhood trauma.
For years as child, I had merciless nightmares. They were so bad I would fight not to go to bed each night. But doesn’t every child do that? What does it matter? When I slept, the creatures came out of the woodwork and hunted me down. Or tried to. I was runner--a marathoner--in my dreams. I could outrun any monster.
Except when I was the monster. In one dream I smiled while I spilled my guts. Literally.
As a girl, I tried to hold disparate realities in my mind, in my body, but it was difficult. Where did serial killers fit into my wilderness background? How did the outrageous acts of violence taking place in nearby Detroit, delineated on the nightly news, fit into my childhood? And the pristine river that ran behind our house--the river that flooded every winter and froze, becoming our winter water wonderland where I skated every chance I could get--why was it now unsafe to eat any fish or shellfish taken from it? Why did I see laundry bubbles on the surface when I went down to the riverside?
I did my best. I saved other kids from bullies but became terrified one day when a teacher threatened to switch us all because she was pissed at us. I hid under the bed each morning for days, refusing to go to school because I said I was sick. Why didn’t anyone believe me?
I wasn’t sick: I was afraid. Of course, I never told my parents what was scaring me.
Perhaps fear is a form of sickness. No, it’s a protection, isn’t it?
And when my animals began to die, I was awash with grief. My parents took me to a doctor and he gave me pills so I wouldn’t be so upset.
Was that the message of the late sixties and early seventies? Don’t feel. But if you do, take a pill, baby.
I read books about the coming apocalypse via the atom bomb. I fantasized about making it to the mountains somewhere out west where I’d be safe from a nuclear holocaust.
We were all going to die from the pollution or a nuclear bomb or some psycho hunting women and if we were afraid about any of it, please don’t mention it; step to the side and take your pills, please, please.
And then I grew up. When I was still in my teens, just barely in college, a psychologist diagnosed me with post traumatic stress disorder. Only she didn’t call it that because they didn’t yet diagnose civilians with this particular disorder. She said I had all of the reflexes of a child who grew up in a war zone.
She didn’t really know how to help me, except more therapy.
How did talking about shit that happened when I was a kid help me feel better? So what if my mother was sick and my father was pissed and we were all just trying to do the best we could? I had it fucking easy.
How long after that did some medical doctor tell me I was allergic to the world?
Now THAT really did not help.
I refused to be allergic to the world.
This is my fucking world, buddy. I am not allergic to it.
And yet, I felt like crap.
I got married and Mario and I moved to the Oregon coast. While I was researching a novel, I learned more than I could quite fathom about pesticides and the dumping of toxic chemicals in developing countries. We were also part of a peace group, helping refugees from El Salvador. I couldn’t come to grips with how seemingly cruel people were to one another. I was diagnosed again with post traumatic stress disorder. Years later, I wrote about this period of my life in a roman a clef, Forks in the Road:
Yet the reality of what was happening to the environment and people was horrific. I wondered how anyone could know the things we now knew and not go crazy. I had always been overly empathetic. (Or just plain pathetic.) As a child, I cried when they cut down trees on the lot next door to us. I mourned the loss of those trees for years. When my dog was run over by a car I was depressed for months; my mom finally took me to a doctor, and he gave me what he called pep pills. My psyche could not take the onslaught of constant horror.
On the Oregon coast, I began to fall apart.
One day I heard a bird cry out. A strange call. I went to the window and looked down at the sidewalk leading to our door. On the cement, half a snake twitched. It was so grotesque. Horrific in a way that only real life can be. I stood watching it for a while, wondering how it got there, finally realizing a bird had most likely dropped half of the snake as it flew over. The snake had lost its mind--and half its body.
Soon after I lost my mind.
Me, middle-class white chick, began exhibiting classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I thought I was going insane. I could not read for a time; the letters kept moving on the page--and besides, the ideas were frightening. I had an anxiety attack that lasted a year. I hallucinated.
A doctor told me I was allergic to the world.
Whatever that meant.
The world was poison and my body was like a map of those poisons--or a container for poisons, he said.
No, no, I screamed silently. The world is more than poisons; I am more than poisons.
“You are like the canary in the mine,” he said.
No. I refuse to be a fucking canary, singing the blues before dropping dead in my cage, feet sticking straight up to the sky.
I looked over at Em as we sat in the natural foods co-op in Nebraska. What if we had never lived on the coast, never worked at the co-op, or joined the peace movement, how would our lives be different?
I doubted I had affected any change as a result of my actions in the peace movement. I gained knowledge. And got sick. Were the two related?
Maybe when the biblical Eve ate the proverbial apple--acquired knowledge--she got sick. She left paradise because she could not bear to live in Eden when so many people outside suffered.
Or she ate the apple, gained knowledge, and lost faith. She no longer believed in an omniscient, omnipotent God. How could she? If he was omniscient and omnipotent, how could he allow such suffering? And if he did allow it, he was a mean evil sonofabitch. She wouldn’t want to believe in him.
So she swallowed the apple, threw up ignorance, and slithered away to be her own goddess--and became a pariah of the dominant culture.
Had she ever wondered what would have happened had she stayed in paradise? Could there be paradise with ignorance? Or was paradise only possible with ignorance?
Had Eve ever wondered about her choices?
I broke during that period of my life. Just like my mother had. Like her, I never recovered. And soon my life completely revolved around getting back to what I had been. Getting back to who I had been.
But that was an impossible task. We can never be what we were. Every single one of us has to endure something we wish we could avoid.
I am a different than I would have been because of what has happened to me. Before, I was brilliant. I was beautiful. I thought I could do absolutely anything. I was going to save the world.
After I wished the world would save me. I am no longer brilliant, at least not in the way I was. My mind isn’t as quick as before. I was an amazing short story writer before. Now I can’t seem to go to that deep place in a short piece of writing--it’s too painful. I need to build up to it, which I can do when I write a novel. I would have never written The Jigsaw Woman before. Or The Church of the Old Mermaids. Certainly not Ruby’s Imagine.
I knew more people before. I was better at relationships. Better in crowds.
Or maybe I wasn’t. Who knows?
It doesn’t actually matter.
Lately I’ve realized I have been focused on my wound. I thought because I tried to ignore it, because I didn’t talk about it to family and friends, because I only wrote about it for people who were mostly strangers, because of all that, I figured I wasn’t someone who was wallowing in my wounded-ness. I didn’t blame my parents or my childhood. I felt angry and sad for moments of time, but then I would stuff those feelings as far down as I could.
I mean, really, what good would it do to feel anything?
Don’t go deep, just stay in the shallows.
I’ve been wondering lately if perhaps as a culture we just don’t go deep. We stay in the shallows. Because it is unseemly to feel things. And especially to feel things and then talk about them.
I’m not sure I feel much of anything these days except bad.
And that ain’t good.
I hear this from many people.
Many beautiful things happen every day of my life. It seems stingy not to feel joy at my fortune. But I think feelings just got in the way: How many years can one feel BAD. If we give away one feeling (the bad feeling), maybe the others go away, too?
Perhaps that is the greatest journey, the greatest task, to find again the treasure of our feelings.
Or at least my feelings.
When I was young, I believed I was put on this earth to love. I knew this was true because I was so good at it. Good at loving.
I’m not sure how good I am at it any more. Yet when I do feel that rush of love now, I feel completely WELL. Whole. Holy.
Some days I’m not sure how to put one foot in front of another. When I have no answers. When I can’t let go and just be. I am so uncomfortable.
Perhaps I need to feel love for my suffering. Perhaps suffering is like some kind of monstrous parent trying to help us get through life.
Pick another way, strange parental unit.
I am tired of my wound. I don’t want to pick at it any longer. I don’t want to focus on it.
Perhaps I will go treasure hunting instead. Maybe learn to find treasure within.
Today I found some kind of aloe vera plant growing near the house here. I love aloe vera plants. I can’t count how many times this plant has healed a part of my body. This particular plant, or bunch of plants, was blooming. I had never seen an aloe vera plant blooming and I was impressed. Coming up from the plump succulent leaves was a stalk and then apricot-colored trumpet-like blossoms fell away from the stalk. This plant was decidedly sexual. I grasped the closed blossoms in one hand and I could feel a kind of pulsing—throbbing? I smiled. Yep. I leaned over and felt the plump dark green leaves, carefully avoiding the tiny spikes on the edges.
I went and got Mario, and we stood together next to the plant. While we were gazing at the plant, we heard the unmistakable whirr of a hummingbird, but when we looked toward it, it flew away and sat on a nearby cholla tree. She watched us, her head going back and forth, back and forth. I leaned against Mario, and without a word, we stepped back a bit, giving the hummingbird a clearer view of her intended: the aloe vera blossoms. Then we stayed very still. I closed my eyes and told her we intended no harm. We were peaceful, peaceful, peaceful.
Several minutes later, she flew toward us and the aloe vera blossoms. She dipped her beak up into this blossom and that blossom, her iridescent green feathers catching the sunlight on this cold morning. I stayed close to Mario, feeling his warmth and familiar heft. I listened to the hummingbird’s wings—brrr, brrr, brrr. And I felt such joy and love. Love for this powerful little bird, for the sensual plant, for the earth beneath my feet and the blue, blue sky above, and for the man next to me.
What a gift.
It felt good.