Elegy for five tree stumps

“Elegy is a form of poetry natural to the reflective mind. It may treat of any subject, but it must treat of no subject for itself; but always and exclusively with reference to the poet. As he will feel regret for the past or desire for the future, so sorrow and love became the principal themes of the elegy. Elegy presents every thing as lost and gone or absent and future.”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Elegy for Five Tree Stumps*

Today my landscape was reshaped
Razed
Rendered flat

Men came with machines

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And marred my outland view

But then, I spoke with them
(The men, not the stumps)

“Are you…?”
“Why are you…?”
I asked

“We are,”
Was the reply
“To make way for something new.”

How many times had I done such things myself?
Destroyed the old to make way for something new?
Too many to count

And yet…

To see them today,
Their roots all torn asunder
(The stumps, not the men)
I felt such sharp pain
That I wanted to shout “Stop!”

But I did not.
For I thought,
“Who am I to stand
in the way of change?”

I know better,
For I have been:

The stump
The roots
The machine
The driver
The dirt
The field
The observer
The one who gave the order

Haven’t we all?

*Though it is likely obvious from the (ahem) level of quality or lack thereof, the quote is Coleridge’s, and the tree stump elegy is mine. It’s my first ever elegy, so please: be kind. Or better yet, compose your own, and together we’ll elevate the elegy as an art form. Or we could just rule the galaxy (as father and son, as mother and daughter, as brother and sister, as friends…whatever). Which is a heck of a lot easier than writing about it.

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Little earthquakes everywhere

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The longer I live, the more I discover that things are not always what they appear to be.  Nor are they as black and white as we wish they were.

It’s important to remind myself of that when I’m tempted to judge others (or myself) too harshly.

When friends and family look at the trajectory of my life and the demise of my marriage and ask “What happened?” I wish I could give them a quick and easy answer.  But there isn’t one. What happens between two people in an intimate relationship is far too deep and mysterious to be captured and summed up in a single sentence.

I have a hard time explaining why I did what I did, why I left when I did, what caused me to go in such a different direction with my life.

It’s not that there weren’t good reasons (there were) or that I don’t know what they are (I do, mostly).

It’s just that rehashing the past in order to find a culprit and assign blame is usually a fool’s errand.  What I will say is this: if there is blame to be laid, the lion’s share of it is on me. We both made mistakes. We’re not bad people. We’re not perfect people.

We’re also not the two people who joined their lives together in 1998.  Those two young kids are long gone. So too is their sense of invincibilty and boundless optimism.  I miss that sometimes; that confidence that you will beat the odds. Once that’s gone it can be difficult to get back.

We were the last two people you’d expect to get divorced. Seriously. At times I look back and can’t believe that all of this has really happened. At times I’m as shocked as anyone else that things turned out the way they did.

By the time we parted ways in 2015, we could no longer reconcile the widening differences between us.  What had started as cracks in our foundation had spread out in several directions.   There were dozens of little earthquakes, and everywhere I turned it seemed things were crumbling — in my work life, at home, with my health, with our finances. The cracks became canyons.  In the end too much had happened, and we had changed so profoundly that we were unrecognizable to each other.

You know how something can look fine from the outside but be falling apart on the inside?  You can’t always see the cracks, especially when they’re plastered over and well concealed. I myself denied their existence for quite some time, until I couldn’t anymore.  Then I pretended not to see them.  But there are some things you can’t un-see.

I tried to fix the cracks by filling them with everything I could think of: work, food, drink, sugar, caffeine,  yoga, meditation, exercise, more work,  nature, reading, counseling,  journaling, self-help books, spiritual groups, house projects, family cheer, everything.  I went on a macrobiotic diet. I completed a marathon. I lost 30 pounds. I volunteered at my kids’ school. I took Spanish classes. I tried a lot of different things, but could not outrun the truth: something was nagging at me. I could not keep going in the direction I was going.

There was and still is a restless force within me, a powerful drive to explore new vistas and learn new things. This came hardwired into my DNA. I can’t apologize for it any more than I can apologize for having green eyes. There’s a bit of the rebel in me. In different circumstances I might have been a revolutionary. (For instance, in Cuba in 1958. But alas: I was born too late.)

I never felt like I fit the conventional mother mold. Often I’ve felt like an imposter, and have wondered how soon the rest of the world was going to figure that out. I figure the real parents — the legit ones who actually know how to do this kind of thing for real — are going to show up any minute to relieve me of my duties because I clearly don’t know what I am doing.

I have not been a bad mother, but I wish that the forces and events that transformed my life had not uprooted my boys from the life they had known up to that point. Change is part of life, and we cannot spare ourselves or our loved ones the pain of it, as much as we might try. I know that. But still. I never wanted them to suffer, least of all as a result of my actions.

I hope my children will forgive me for the upheaval I have wrought in their lives. The children’s father, my former husband, a generous and gracious man, forgave me long ago. He says he hopes I can forgive myself, for my own sake. I hope that, too.

Have I done the right thing with my life? I don’t know.  Is there such thing as a “one right path” for a person’s life?  If so, how is that determined? And by whom?

For some people, organized religion provides the answers to these questions. For others, a communal code of ethics establishes what is right and what is wrong. My own spiritual beliefs are eclectic; my cathedral is more likely to be a grove of pines than a bricks and mortar type place. I respect the beliefs of people of faith. I think we’re all trying to do what we think is right, whatever we think”right” is. We’ve each got our own little pieces of truth.

But I don’t accept that there is one truth, or just one “right” way to do things. I do not believe that things are black and white. I’ve seen too much of the world to buy the lie that any one of us has cornered the market on right versus wrong. “You divorced a good man? Then you are a bad woman.”  I know plenty of people who hold that view. Most of them are no longer speaking to me.

That’s okay. I never expected anyone to understand why I did what I did, or to forgive me. If you’ve never had the bottom fall out of your life, never stood amidst the rubble and wondered “How the hell did I end up here?” I can see how it might be easy to judge that kind of mess as “something that happens to other people, bad people who make bad choices — but not to me! I’ll never end up like that.” I used to think that way, too. Until I became one of those people. That’s how I learned — the hard way** — that things (and people) are not always what they seem.

Looking around, though, I find myself in pretty good company.  Turns out there are a fair number of us who haven’t lived perfect lives, who aren’t blameless,  who have stumbled.  And among us are those who have dusted themselves off and gotten back into the arena to give it another try. And another.

That’s where I hope to be.  Bruised, shaken, unsure, still covered in the dust of a dozen little earthquakes, but damn it, still in the arena.

*Except when they start crusades, or go on jihadist benders, or shoot up Planned Parenthood. That’s just messed up.

**Is there any other way? Seriously. Do you ever hear anybody say, “Oh, I learned that the easy way”?  Me neither.

Photo credit: texturelib.com

What are the chances?

Nobody plans for their marriage to end in divorce. I certainly didn’t.  No sirree. I was sure that it would last forever. I was in for the long haul. I just didn’t foresee the forces and events that would change my life, transforming me into someone quite different than the one who said “I do” that day.

When they were little our children occasionally would ask, “Are you and dad ever going to get a divorce?” My answer — which I emphatically believed then — was always the same, delivered with a reassuring smile and a warm hug.  “No. Never. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Fast forward a few years.  It’s 2008 and I am 36.  “Life begins at thirty-six!” my father once said.  He was right, in a way.  Quite a lot had to happen before I could see the wisdom and hope in that statement, however.  What I didn’t know then: my life had to crumble first, and it would be up to me to rebuild a new life out of the rubble. Thirty-six was the beginning of the end for me.

Fast forward a few more years to the present day.  Nearly all the major building blocks of my life — my living situation, my career, my vocation, my future plans and aspirations — have changed.  If you had told me five years ago what my life would be like today, I would have laughed and said, “No way.”  Such an outcome seemed like a near impossibility; about as likely as a meteorite landing on my head.

By now I should know better than to laugh off things I thought would never happen to me.

Back when I was teaching health to 10th graders, I’d remind them that statistics can be useful in evaluating risks, making decisions, and determining which things they should worry about at their age (drunk driving accidents, which kill over 7,000 teens each year) and which ones not to worry so much about (odds of being struck by lightning: 1 in 5,500,000).

The thing to remember about statistics like that last one is, there are a lot of high impact/low probability events that you shouldn’t spend time worrying about because the chances of them happening to you are miniscule. Is it likely that you will be that 1 in 5,500,000? No. But you know what else? Somebody’s going to be that one. And if that somebody is you, that event is likely to change your life significantly.

There are at least two lessons one can draw from this. They seem contradictory at first glance, but both are true:

1) There are exceptions to every rule, so please, do not resign yourself to a particular fate. Be curious, question popular wisdom, believe that you can overcome even the toughest obstacles and the longest odds.  Don’t take anything for granted.

2) The rules of life generally will apply to you, too. There are some risks you don’t need to take and shouldn’t take. You are not likely to be the exception to the rule. You are not immortal. Don’t take anything for granted.

The first part of the message is the easy sell: yes, sometimes you have to look beyond the field of obvious possibilities and shake things up.

But the second part is tougher to accept, especially for kids who can’t yet imagine that someday they might face the fates of the adults in their lives. You may not believe it now, kids, but the scary stuff that happens to other people can happen to you, too.

When you’re young and feel invincible, it’s easy to believe you won’t be the one: the 1 in 6 Americans who will die from heart disease, the 1 in 7 who will die of cancer, the 1 in 300 who will die in a car accident.

Even as adults, we think we will beat the odds.  Even after I became a statistic myself — a one in a 1 in 23 million chance – I still believed I’d be the one on the favorable side of much more common fates.

There are many things I never thought would happen to me. Half of marriages end in divorce. That’s one in every two. Even after I was one in twenty-three million, I still believed I’d beat the odds and not be that one in two.

Nobody plans for their marriage to end in divorce. I certainly didn’t.

Why am I here? I can’t remember.

In yesterday’s post,  I committed to telling my own turning point stories.   Might as well start with the big one that divided my life into “before” and “after.”

I was working as a policy analyst at a government agency that underwrote and managed (among other things) one of the biggest and most successful environmental programs in the world. Before that I taught math, science, and health at a private high school for three years. I was taking masters level courses at Portland State University in global environmental economics, system dynamics, political science and intercultural communication. I had already completed about thirty credits of postgraduate work and was on the road to a promising career at the intersection of politics, law, and science. My life felt full of opportunity.

Such were my plans and ambitions when a brain tumor wiped that dream right off my map.

To describe in medical terms (or even layman’s terms) what transpired in the first nine months of 2001 would require more space than a typical blog post can accommodate. Plus it would bore the pants off most people. It’s not that interesting unless it happened to you, or you’re into that kind of thing. (If it’s the latter, you’re probably not going to find what you’re looking for here.)

In the words of Inigo Montoya, swordsman and Spaniard:

Lemme esplain…No, there is too much. Lemme sum up.”

A cavernous hemangioma had taken up residence in the frontal lobe of my brain, where it had been growing into a tangled mass of channelized veins that were leaking blood into the tissue around them.

Picture a flood in a subway station that drowns the passengers, shorts out the electrical circuits, fills the tunnels with sludge, and rots the tracks.

That was my brain. Blood, like any other liquid, follows the path of least resistance. Whatever it encountered along the way — white matter, gray matter, neural networks — were quickly smothered, clogged, and calcified. Nothing could be done about the dead tissue, other than to remove it, along with the mass in the middle.

In the meantime, though, there were daily seizures and excruciating headaches. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t be left alone. I couldn’t understand or follow basic instructions. Even simple conversations were exhausting and difficult, because by the end of a sentence, I’d forgotten the beginning, and couldn’t remember what we were talking about.

Traumatic brain injury is funny like that: all (or at least most) of the pieces are there, but you don’t remember how they fit together. I love jigsaw puzzles, but putting the pieces of my life back together taxed me beyond belief. Everyday tasks took two and three times longer than they used to, because I often had to talk myself through them step by step, and remind myself how to do them.

“Brush teeth, brush teeth…okay. First open the door. The one to that room. With the mirror. Open the mirror. No, wait. You can’t open a mirror. How does a mirror open? What is in it? Oh…I was looking for something. Something I had to get. What was it? Is it here? Why did I come in this room? Is that me? That face? No, that does not look like me. That girl is tired and lost. She looks so old and her face is so blank.

Why am I here? I can’t remember.”

A lot of days went by like that. In addition to the constant clatter (“why is everything so loud all of a sudden?”) there was a buzzy little voice inside my head that muttered endlessly about our situation.

“There’s so much I don’t remember. ..there’s so much I don’t remember…do you think they know how much you don’t know? Can they see that you are bluffing, bluffing, faking it, smiling and nodding even though inside you are shaken and aghast that you just got lost on your way to the bathroom and then couldn’t remember how to operate the sinks? Jesus, Molly…what are you going to do with yourself? Is this it, how it’s going to be for the rest of your life?”

Losing my hopes and dreams for my career left me rudderless. Around that time I learned a phrase from a big red-bearded Irishman named Bryan that summed up my situation succinctly: I was like “a ship in irons,” stalled with no wind in my sails, unable to navigate in any direction, and more or less at the mercy of the wild open sea.

I sensed that there still might be hope for my recovery, that maybe I could learn to speak in more than one -syllable words, and rebuild my vocabulary, and become again the writer I once was, before…everything changed.

Fifteen years later, I have the benefit of hindsight and I know how it all turned out.

But at the time, I didn’t. All I knew was that my life as I knew it was over.

You are not for everyone.

A friend posted this on Facebook recently:

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There are a lot of little pearls of wisdom tucked into these two paragraphs. Each sentence packs a punch that might hit you differently depending on where you are in life.

The line that got me was: “Sharing your path with someone is a sacred gift.”  In launching the turning point stories project, one of the things that most worried me was the depths to which I’d be asking people to go.  Turning point stories don’t tend toward the trivial. Instead,  they often center around the most mysterious and intense human experiences: death, birth, divorce,  marriage,  the loss of a job, a home, a cherished ideal, or even one’s innocence.  Asking someone to tell this kind of story is no small matter.

Do I have that right? I wondered. Who am I to ask a friend or a stranger to tell me a story about something that  changed their lives forever?  Can I really ask people to go there, to recount their most intimate moments, their fears, their missteps,  their regrets?

To recollect such searing memories will no doubt stir up long-dormant emotions. Some stories are buried deep for good reason,  to protect us from being wounded again by reliving the trauma.

Our brains often cannot distinguish memories from the actual experiences they represent.  When we “relive” an event through memory, the brain processes the information as if the event were happening in real time, and the body responds accordingly. A man describing a house fire that happened forty years ago might find in the retelling of the story that his palms are sweaty, his heart beats faster, panic rises in his chest, and waves of fear overtake him.

Present reactions to past events can be more powerful than we expect.  What if people aren’t prepared for that? What if I’m not prepared for it? My own turning point experiences are chock full of scary, serious stuff that sends shivers down my spine every damn time I think about it.*

So who am I, to be asking such questions?

Answer: I am a fellow traveler on this journey.  I wouldn’t ask anyone to plumb those kind of depths if I had not already been to those dark places myself.  I consider myself fortunate to have returned to tell the tale. Not everyone is so lucky. I could not, in good conscience, ask others to share their struggles, their tender moments and hard lessons, if I was not willing to share my own.

To be entrusted with these stories is a great honor, and a tremendous responsibility. If sharing your path with someone is a sacred gift, then this project is a journey we’ll take together as fellow travelers.  If you’re willing to go there, so am I.

*Helpful hint: if you’re wondering whether a particular story represents a turning point or not, here is a good test. Hold the story in your mind for a few minutes. Recall as many details as you can. Then observe what’s going on in your body.  If you shudder, or feel a lump of emotion in your throat that wasn’t there a minute ago, or suddenly realize that you can’t imagine telling this story without vomiting,  crying, blushing, or some combination of the three, chances are you’re onto something.

 

The greatest target in the world

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Photo: http://foreverknight.wikia.com/wiki/London_Blitz

“Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”

— Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

In the buildup to World War II, British military leaders were concerned  that the city of London could be hit by an aerial bombing  campaign that would kill or wound over a quarter of a million civilians in a single week.  The city of London, said Winston Churchill,  was “the greatest target in the world,  a kind of a tremendous,  fat, valuable cow, tied up to attract the beast of prey.” The British government feared that there would be mass panic in the streets that would overwhelm the local police and require the already overextended army to subdue the population.

The bombing began in the fall of 1940 with fifty-seven consecutive nights of attacks.  Over a million explosives were dropped on the city by German warplanes over a period of  eight months. The damage to buildings,  neighborhoods, and infrastructure was as devastating as predicted.

The people did not panic, however.

Some evacuated to the countryside. Others stayed and went about their business as usual. After the initial shock of the first wave of bombings, many Londoners discovered that the thing they had dreaded for so long was not as terrible as they had feared.  It was difficult, but survivable.

In the midst of the chaos of war, the people of London found within themselves and their neighbors a resilience and resolve that no enemy could defeat. Those who survived went about their lives seemingly unfazed by continued bombardment from the skies, defying the predictions of the British authorities and the expectations of the German forces that aimed to terrorize them.

One might attribute this reaction to cultural factors.  The British pride themselves on their stoicism.  The “stiff upper lip” is considered a sign of dignity in the wake of tragedy.

But it turns out that this phenomenon has been observed in many other cities and towns across the world.

Why was it that these populations responded to bombings as they did?  Was there something special about these particular groups of people that made them behave in a way that was absolutely contrary to what military strategists anticipated?

A Canadian psychiatrist named J.T. MacCurdy was intrigued by this question.  He conducted hundreds of interviews with survivors of the London Blitz and combed through the stories of those who lived through it, looking for clues that might explain why they were emboldened rather than frightened by the bombs.

In their recollections he found a common thread: after facing their worst fears and living to tell the tale, survivors emerged on the other side with a fearlessness they had never known before.  The experience itself provided an exhilarating boost of courage that made them feel almost invincible.

We tend to romanticize the people who came before us — our parents and grandparents, the so-called “Greatest Generation” of World War II, our immigrant ancestors who made perilous journeys in hopes of a better life.  It’s tempting to see their stories as quaint accounts of an almost mythical past; things that happened to other people in another time that have no relevance for our modern-day lives.

Yet when we examine our own turning point stories, or those of people we know, a similar pattern comes up.  An unexpected transformation occurs.

In the beginning, you do not think you have the courage necessary to face what is before you.*  Afterwards, you discover that this courage was there along.

Or was it?

Could it be that living through your worst fears gives you the courage to overcome them, and not the other way around?

That’s a question that I intend to explore further in this series.  I’m curious about what happens between the “before” and the “after.”  I’m fascinated by the transformations that occur in that middle space, where ordinary people just like you and me — and those that came before us — find the courage to do what they did not think they could do.

 

*[This is usually irrelevant.  Our turning points do not care about our current level of confidence or competence.  They do not approach us when we are ready or when we feel strong enough or when it’s a convenient time.  Quite the opposite.  Inconsiderate little bastards.]

Aim for the chopping block.

“Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.”

– Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Have you ever split logs?

It’s exhilarating.  The heft of the axe as you lift it, the swing of the heavy blade, the tug at your sinews, the cracking sound of splitting wood….Mmmm. Very satisfying.

In one of my college English textbooks, there was an essay by Annie Dillard that changed the way I thought about writing.

The essay begins in a drafty cabin on the Puget Sound where Dillard is trying to finish a manuscript. The writing isn’t going particularly well. She’s also trying to chop enough wood to heat the place, and she’s floundering there, too.

The chopping block is a flat old stump where she stands the logs on end.  She hacks at them; they fall over; she tries again. This time, she gets a piece of it, a small splinter off the side.  After a few more hacks at it — “chipping flints,” Dillard calls it — she’s got an impressive little pile of wood chips, but no firewood.

That night she has a dream.  She sees that the way to split the log is to imagine it is a transparent thing through which the axe head must pass to reach its real target: the chopping block.

What does this have to do with writing, or with turning point stories?

The lesson on log-splitting applies to storytelling, too. When we set pen to paper to write our stories, we start with a vision.  The writer’s task is to translate that vision into something real and tangible.  However it appears to us inside our heads  — in fine, vivid detail, rich with emotion, full of meaning  — we are confronted with a blank page. Writing is difficult because it requires us to take those “things that seemed limitless when they were inside your head” as Stephen King says, and wrestle them to the page. This is much harder than it looks.

The talent of the artist is in rendering the vision in their heads in physical form, as a sculpture, a painting, a photograph, a piece of music, a poem. The trick is in the rendering, though. Because even if we do so perfectly, what appears in physical form can never exactly replicate the vision.

The vision is an ephemeral, limitless multidimensional thing; the stuff of dreams.

The representation of the vision in physical form is limited; it cannot capture and contain such qualities. Knowing this in advance, the artist must be willing to settle for an imperfect facsimile, something that is “no more than living size” when it is brought out.

This is where we so often give up as writers: “if I can’t do this perfectly, if I can’t render this exactly as I envisioned it, then I don’t want to do it at all.” We are our own worst critics.

So how does one aim for the chopping block, as a writer? By looking beyond the “logs”– the stories begun but not yet finished, the novels knocking around in your noggin, whatever it is inside of you that might want to leap onto the page — and focusing on what is solid. The chopping block for the writer is the act of writing itself. Our visions for our work are intangible, but the work itself is tangible .

The products of our work may not be perfect. But they have an advantage over the stories and ideas that seemed limitless inside our heads: they are solid. The vision may be perfect, but it doesn’t do anybody any good if it cannot be shared with others. That means we have to take on the difficult task of looking through the raw materials, cutting through the vision and swinging the axe decisively toward the chopping block: the finished product. * However imperfect your efforts, get out there with your axe and keep working at it.

*Stephen Covey put it succinctly:”Start with the end in mind.”

those moments in life that change everything