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The-Open-Window-by-Henri-MatisseI think this is my favourite place: on the threshold, before stepping over. Before whatever is about to happen happens. When potentiality is infinite, when nothing is fixed yet. It doesn’t last long, this moment of passage. In fact, I’d say it doesn’t last at all, that it never exists except in imagination. But what a powerful and potent figment—fragment–fracture. Between the past and the future. Between who I have been and who I will be. Finally I can lift my eyes from the path, and pause in between two identical footfalls, and feel the fullness, the heightened clarity and purpose of exodus. Since that’s what it has been these last three and a half years, a protracted exodus, a wandering, with only a dream-shadow of an idea of home to guide me. It has been an underworld, a desert, a tundra. Give it any mythic landscape and that will do. Somewhere full of the same angry wind that blew through all my earliest childhood poems. Imagine a solitary walker. Imagine a tattered shawl. Imagine a long shadow and a raven and a star. There is something in all of that that deserves acknowledgement, a moment of awe. The same awe that you can’t help feeling when you watch salmon leaping up a river to spawn, or when you hear about a dog that wandered five years and five thousand miles to find the family that abandoned it. The violent single-mindedness of the instinct for survival, the mad certainty of a love that will shred itself just for the chance to manifest. And now it is over. The knight has laid down to rest under the head of the dragon. The lovers are entwined and smell of one another’s skin. The monk has prayed bareheaded in every season and opens his mouth for the first time to speak. Ordinary life resumes, with its plenty, and its sleepy afternoons, and its chores, its pleasures and its grievances. But everything is changed forever. Each petty detail, each small curl of leaf and cloud of words and scatter of pebbles is marked with the indelible mark of arrival. The world is shocking in its beauty. From now on every place is home.

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This morning, exactly three years after my Dad took his last breath, I woke to my son swinging himself up onto my bed, which is still too tall for him to climb easily, and the climbing of which therefore elicits all sort of grunting and muttering and yelps of triumph and pleas for help. He snuggled close to me, a rarer and rarer occurrence, now that he is getting bigger and his mind is full of projects and plans, of trucks and planes and zebras and questions about breakfast. But he did snuggle up to me today and looked me right in the eyes, once I’d managed to open mine, and said, just the way he might ask me any other question, like was it a school day, or where do birds sleep, or what is lightning, he asked me: “Mom, are you going to die?” I told him the truth or almost the truth, since we don’t ever know, do we, which is that we’re all going to die someday, but that I was planning to be around for a very long time, and that by the time I died he’d be a grownup with kids of his own and he’d know how to take good care of himself, and he’d have his sister there to help him if he ever needed help, and she’d be a grownup too and the two of them would love each other and be a family for each other no matter what. He spent the rest of the morning, on and off, saying “we’re all going to die soon” in a kind of singsongy way, but he assured me he wasn’t worried about it at all. I’d been worried about today, worried that I’d feel overwhelmed with sorrow, that I wouldn’t be able to see the too-many clients I’d scheduled for the whole day long without a break, that I’d need time I didn’t have to be alone with my thoughts, to properly grieve. But as it turns out being alone wasn’t at all what I needed. I needed to be holding my son in my arms and looking into his  eyes and having a little chat about my own mortality, and about his. And then I needed to go to work and talk it out with the young men and women who are also wrestling with it, how to live with the knowledge each of them is carrying inside them like a dark seed, the seed of their own death, of the end of things, of themselves, of the people they love. But this is the thing I’ve been learning, at work, and at home, with my children and when I’m alone with myself: that if we don’t tend the seed, if we don’t acknowledge it, and water it, and give it light, if we don’t carry it like a blessing–our deaths, our absolute finality–then we never really get to live. Because hiding from it takes all our strength. In burying and reburying death, we actually bury ourselves too, we bury ourselves alive. So we have to let it breathe. We have to get close to it and smell it and taste it and feel its weight. I see it every week at work, the magic that happens from looking at death straight on, from taking it in. When a person can do that, something changes in them, they grow lighter, they come out from the shadows, they get strong and brave. It doesn’t make me miss my father any less. That’s the part I felt I didn’t have to tell my son just yet. How much it hurts, how much it keeps on hurting even when the loss becomes ordinary, even when years have passed and the death of the person you love isn’t slicing you open or crushing your heart. It hurts, and you miss them, and you wish you could have just a few more hours with them, you wish you could hold them and be held by them, but you know that you can’t, not now and not ever. But I can hold my son, as long as he’ll let me, which is approximately 3 and a half minutes, maybe less. And in holding him, I am now wiser than I might otherwise be. I know the holding is not infinite, that there will come a time when each of us has to let the other go. And so holding him this morning, his thin arms, and his bare neck, and his wriggling feet, the morning breath smell of him, the funny little noises he makes when he’s happy, I can live all of that with the sweetness of a second chance, I can live it with gratitude and joy, I can be truly and completely alive.

narrative medicine

girl-with-chrysanthemums(Odilon Redon — Girl With Crysanthemums)

The decision to go back to school (again) to study social work came all in a flash. I had an absolutely clear and electric vision of the work I wanted to do, of my life’s task. It happened in a fraction of a second, while I was reading a literary magazine and came across an advertisement for a masters program in narrative medicine. I had absolutely no idea what narrative medicine was (and I still have only a vague idea) but I knew right away, or rather, I had what I can only describe as an overwhelming bodily response to those words, which let me know that THIS, whatever it was, was the thing I needed to do with the time left to me on this Earth. The details of how I would do this thing, this narrative medicine, or my version of it, came more slowly, but somehow, in the middle of the fog of grief and confusion that blinded me all those months after the death of my father and the end of my marriage, I was able to keep this one thing in focus, my desire to do the work, to pursue a calling. And now, two and a half years later, as I prepare for my last summer of studies, renting an apartment in New York City, registering the children for camps, counting and counting and counting again and wondering how on earth I’ll afford the trip this time around, I’m also thinking ahead to the end of the summer when my schooling will be done and the time to WORK begins.

Which is not to say I have not been working. The last year and a half I have been learning the arts of healing, the kind of healing that comes from telling stories that have been too long held in silence, the stories that are so hard to speak it feels as though any listener will be destroyed by them, shattered and crushed. Or the kinds of stories that are so shameful it feels as though anybody listening will flee in disgust. Or the stories that don’t have words yet. Or the stories that are unfolding so quickly and so without precedent that they appear to be meaningless fragments without any connection one to another. I am working at being that listener. The one who is not destroyed. The one who won’t hide or run from the stories she is hearing. The one who can hold the fragments for a while, who can help to carry their weight for a leg of the journey.

But from August it’s time to do this work in a whole new way. As an employee, as the holder of a job. And while it is easy to imagine doing the work, working with joy and with gratitude, the in-between step of actually looking for the job where I can do the work I love is daunting and distressing. I have never been good at selling myself. I always run from selling myself. Even the times now and again when someone comes looking for me, comes looking to buy something I have made, I tend to freeze, to become mute, to turn to stone.

So I find myself squeezed between two internal imperatives–on the one hand my desire to run from recognition and remuneration and any practical way being-in-the-world; and on the other hand the necessity of working, of doing the work that feels as natural to me as walking or swimming or dancing, as necessary as breathing. The choice is obvious. Which means, I am beginning to realize, that I need to take some of my own narrative medicine. I have to change my story. I have to make a choice between fear and love, love for my children who need me to house and clothe and feed them, love for the work I do, love for the people who come so bravely each day, with so much trust, their bruised and bandaged stories in their arms. I have to learn to be as brave as they are. That’s the part I didn’t foresee, how terrifying it is to become somebody different, somebody unfamiliar and new.

On getting naked

Egon Schiele -- Seated Female Nude with Raised Right Arm

Egon Schiele — Seated Female Nude with Raised Right Arm

Because I am and have always been a shy person, in the sense that there is an inverse relationship between the number of people in a room with me and my own sense of inner peace, I never expected to find work that is an unqualified joy. Work, even work that I love–and I have loved working, with my whole being, especially when I’ve been teaching–still always required something of a compromise, required folding my intimate inner self away behind a screen so that I could go out into the world as a functional human being, and not as a quivering mass of exposed jelly. The shell, the mask, the uniform, whatever you want to call the protective layer that is required of an adult who can act productively in the world of adults, protects not only myself, but also everyone around me. Nobody wants to do business with quivering jelly. Some structure and fortitude is required to get the job–any job–done.

But the thing I’ve discovered about counselling–that’s what I’ve been doing three days a week since September–is that doing the job well requires the removal of the shell, the laying aside of the mask. It is not a matter of becoming weak or ineffectual–neither of those things describe my inmost self anyhow. It is a matter of being completely exposed. To listen well to my clients, I must listen with my chest opened, with my heart beating in the cold air. Which has got me thinking about what exposure means, what baring oneself really can mean. I know what this exposure is not. It’s not speaking about myself. It’s not demanding anything for myself, neither love nor attention nor admiration. In fact, the opposite. It’s about becoming, briefly, so much myself that it is possible to stop thinking about myself, to close the gap between the me who is doing and me who is thinking about what she is doing. Instead of hearing and seeing and criticizing and commending myself, when I am in the room with a client, I can become really and truly attuned to another person, to the immensity of her suffering, to the brightness of her hope.

What strikes me is how many years I spent reading about this state, all those philosophy books, the Thou, the Dasein, the Other, whatever language you want to give it. I have read and read and read, and in my most loving and intimate relationships have caught glimpses of what this thing means,this Being There. But to wake up each morning, and put on my clothes, and feed the children, and take them to school, and ride the subway and the bus, bumping up against other commuters, reading my novel, and walk through slush and ice and snow, and greet my colleagues, and pour my morning tea, and hang up my coat and organize my papers, and walk into that tiny room with one other human being, one stranger, and then to take it all off, the stories, the children, the ice, the train, the morning’s toast, the parking ticket to be paid, the job to be found, the doctors’ appointments, the fears, the blocks of lego, the snippets of music, the night’s fading dreams–to fold all those layers away and look into the eyes of this stranger and to be naked before her, without reservation, without judgment–that is the thing I now understand I have been training for all my life.

Last Things

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In the autumn I took my kids apple picking. Since my grandmother was visiting town, I invited her to come too. She’s been having a hard time lately, which isn’t unusual when you’re 90-some years old, and she’s been struggling to walk and to climb stairs. I didn’t think a drive to an orchard an hour away, followed by a walk among the trees and a hay-ride would really interest her, but she said: “Thank you! I thought I’d never pick apples again!”

Watching her twist apples from those tiny trees (I’ve since learned that the fruit boughs are grafted to dwarf trunks to make them reachable), watching her taste them, grimace at the sour ones, and toss the cores into the bright green grass, got me thinking about what it would mean if anything out of the ordinary, any pleasure supplemental to our usual routine, might be the last of its kind.

As a parent I have spent many hours thinking about and applauding firsts. First words, first steps, first time buttoning a button. But how do we honour last things? How do we know when to begin paying attention, to begin saying goodbye? I remember the very last time I made love to my then-husband, and feeling a thousand miles away, watching the awkward unfolding of what I knew would be the final, the very final time I ever touched him in that way. It was, I imagine, what an astronaut might feel looking at Earth, a place one has lived for so long but that turns out to be only a small rock spinning in endless space. I remember the last time I told my father that I loved him, after he stopped breathing but before the blood bubbled up from his mouth, in that silence when the nurses whispered to me that he could still hear every word I said. I felt the opposite then, as if my father was magnified, his hand, which I was holding in mine, the size and weight of a continent. But those are exceptional moments of knowing oneself to be at the end of something. How many more times have last things come and gone without any ceremony, any sense of awe or sorrow? Friends I will never see again, places I will never revisit, beloved books whose names and authors I have forgotten and won’t remember. When was the last time I looked in the mirror and saw no grey hairs? When was the last time I bent all the way over and didn’t feel that twinge of tightness in my lower back?

A few weeks ago, a breast cancer scare brought me into a panicked awareness of my own transience here in this body, in this life. While it turns out I am quite healthy and have every intention of remaining here a good long while to kiss my children and hold my lover’s face between my hands, and to write some damned good stories, and to walk with my feet on the rocky earth, and to swim in lakes and rivers and seas, nonetheless I can’t help feeling like a visitor, living at a remove of just a few millimeters from myself. I find myself looking at strangers’ bodies and thinking of them as fragile boats a journeying soul has borrowed for a while to paddle from one shore to another. My own body too feels like a miraculous contraption relaying me from moment to moment and place to place, from train delays to my children’s music lessons, from the car repair shop to a room where a stranger is opening his or her heart, from the bakery to my bed where each night I dream strange beautiful dreams. How odd, how unusual, how perfect, the mechanic’s greasy fingers, the man on the subway admiring my hat, the young woman crying into a tissue, the elderly lady requesting her bread be sliced extra thin, my son sliding rosin onto his violin bow. How extraordinary, how impossible, how fleeting, how full, how breathless, each moment, each one the very last of its kind.

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(Franklin Carmichael, A Northern Silver Mine)

I have marriage and babies on the brain. I keep catching myself in the dimwitted sort of reverie that is promoted by catalogues for outdoor clothing and patio furniture. Me and my love and our children in some pristine peaceful place, without visible neighbours. There is ocean spray nearby, but no itchy sand or scorching heat. We must be in Oregon or Maine. The children are delightful. Even the (homemade, of course) ice-cream stains on their white clothing are artful and absolutely hilarious. You can tell because we are all laughing, our perfectly enamelled teeth glistening in the sun. Ok, maybe I would never venture to fantasize about white kids’ clothes (who invented such a thing?) or cosmetic dentistry. But for the rest I am there, right were the advertising agency magicians have calculated I would be. 35 years old, at the very midpoint of my life (plus or minus a decade or two), and wanting nothing more than a home, something solid, made of wood and stones, a place where I myself can grow roots. Yesterday, possibly for the very first time in my life, I even noticed myself dreaming about ownership, possession not in the consumerist sense, but in the sense of unqualified belonging. What was it Hegel said about possession? Ah, thank goodness for the internet. Here it is. In the Philosophy of Right he writes:

Taking possession is always piece-meal in type; I take into possession no more than what I touch with my body. But here comes the second point: external objects extend further than I can grasp. Therefore, whatever I have in my grasp is linked with something else. It is with my hand that I manage to take possession of a thing, but its reach can be extended…  If I am in possession of something, the intellect immediately draws the inference that it is not only the immediate object in my grasp which is mine but also what is connected with it.

So it is with my house by the sea, the one I’m dreaming of. The house, my desire to possess it, is just my simple brainstem’s way of trying to grasp the intangibles . By touching wood and stone and glass I am actually trying to touch the fiery love I feel for each of the people who, in my imaginings, live within those dust and mold-free walls–my lover, my children, my children yet to be. I want to hold them close, not only their bodies, but the invisible brightness inside them. Within my fantasy, I want to create a home for theirs, for their dreams and hopes and imaginings and creations. This is what those copywriters know about all of us. They are selling us the mask of the intangible, the husk of  brilliance, the casing of love. They are no better or worse then the hawkers of talismans, those little charms and pebbles that represent to us everything that matters most.

Clichés

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For the last few days I have been reading a book. This in itself is remarkable, since, although I seem constantly to be reading–flipping through articles for my classes, clicking through the news, pouring myself into the amnesiac plasma of virtual information, I rarely read any more in a sustained and focused way. I know it’s a cliché, but when I think back to my pre-internet self–the one I managed to sustain at least into my early twenties thanks to my near total failure to grasp new technologies–I feel enormous nostalgia. I still have bookshelves stacked overfull, but the books warping their shelves are no longer my first refuge, the place where I go for escape and wonder and rest. Like a love relationship grown tired, they have become almost painful to have around. Through no fault of their own, they remind me, when I look at them, of the better, cleverer, more innocent person I used to be. 

Which brings me to the point. Nostalgia aside, the book I’m reading, which was given to me a few days ago by the mother of a friend, has got me thinking about love and loving and being loved. Here we go, more clichés! Actually, the book is interesting because it addresses straight on what we all understand viscerally but reject in theory–namely that when it comes to the person that we love, THE person, the one we entrust with our most inner self, the one to whom we are willing to give and from whom we want to receive Everything, when it comes to our one and only heart’s desire, what we are really asking of them is to parent us, to be the parent we always dreamed of. And instead of rejecting that desire as pathological or perverse, the book asks: why not? Why can’t we be for each other the source for nourishment and steadiness and faith and extravagant kindness? I wrote here a while back about the way we leave our children ever-unfulfilled, wanting more than we can ever give them, and how that wanting can open up the world for them, make them explorers and creators and lovers. But I wrote then that fulfillment was a dream we could never actually achieve. My mind agrees. It says there is no perfection, that the world and the human condition in it consist of constant change and struggle and perseverance in the face of impossible odds. But my heart is blissfully deaf to all my mind’s yammering and equivocating. My heart isn’t squeamish or embarrassed or proud. It has nothing against clichés. It is naive as a child, and knows, as children do, that it loves and is loved with an illogical wholeness, and it isn’t afraid.

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