quietly in a room

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“All human miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” –Sepharad, Antonio Muñoz Molina

I have never been one to make grand declarations about my plans or hopes (at least not since reaching the trials of adulthood, watching hopes and plans be beaten like a piñata – what you end up with in life is some of the candies and tchotchkes that fall from the piñata. Pieces of your hopes and moments of sweetness in unexpected flavors that you’ve scrambled to pick up before someone else does), knowing that change will come regardless of what I do. I might be able to guide the changes that occur, making decisions and taking actions that will influence outcomes. But claiming – ‘everything changes and is different from today’ is a dangerous and foolhardy path. And yet, without sometimes taking leaps, if not always the grandest or furthest, palpable change isn’t possible. Sometimes to agitate movement, you have to force things through. Sometimes you have to do things that are uncomfortable or that hurt.

And this week I’ve had to do something that I long ago should have done – something that does hurt, but the longer-term effects of not taking this course of action will hurt much more. The last three years have been a long process of slow change, acceptance and finding contentment. Now, the trick is to move forward with longer, faster strides – and this is not possible with lingering elements grabbing at my ankles and trying to trip me up.

I can and do sit, happily, quietly, in a room alone. I can no longer invite those who cannot into my room with me.

The other day I was thinking about the creation of “victim selfhood”. I know a lot of people who create their own miseries (in a host of different ways). I think and write a lot about this, but reflect also on the fact that it’s not as though I am immune. We can all see our own actions and behaviors through a prism that relieves us of blame or absolves us of responsibility. I try exceptionally hard not to do this now – possibly even to the point of being annoying to the people around me who would rather that I not analyze my own actions and motivations in such detail.

Looking at youth (and this could be anything between childhood and one’s early 20s), in particular, we can, in our naivete and inexperience, really believe we were in the right and not reflect on all the things that we did wrong, excusing them, if acknowledging them at all, with mild self-exculpations: “I was a child. I didn’t know what I was doing.” I’ve written my side of many stories involving my long-ago friends, examining my own feelings and reactions – but not necessarily divining all the details of things I did to set things in motion. Yes, for example, I was competitive with others for the attentions of the one friend we all wanted to love us best; yes, I was messed up and trying to escape in my own way, leading me to slip in and undermine a close friend in a situation neither one of us should have been in at all, and then, to my own detriment, took that situation further, creating a reality that was not real, doing all kinds of things that, while they seemed innocuous to me at the time, still surface and haunt me and make me want to apologize to people 30 years after the fact. (In fact I already have – years ago, even if there is some part of me that realizes as a 40-something woman that children cannot be held accountable for emotional repercussions that they do not have the maturity and experience to understand.)

But on some level, of course we know what we are doing. But being young and inexperienced, I didn’t comprehend the seriousness of the things I did – not just in the moment, how some of my actions could lead to perilous consequences, but also further-reaching repercussions – toying with the psyches of fragile, damaged, middle-aged men (for example), but in truth, despite living with one of the most troubled, damaged people I have ever known and seeing other evidence of it all around me, I somehow didn’t really believe that adults could be that fragile – and felt that the silly games of a bored 13-year-old girl couldn’t possibly wound anyone so very deeply that it would matter and would in fact harm the trust they were able to place in all the future relationships they tried to build. It is almost as though the life I led, that all people led, before adulthood, wasn’t even real life. So much of life during that time felt surreal and out of my hands and control, that the things I could control – as destructive as they might be – were seized, eagerly, giving me a (false) sense of maturity and power.

It’s rather stream of consciousness, this whole thing. I am just coming to terms with finding strength in considering these flaws and mistakes of youth – borne as they were of youthful insecurity (wanting to be liked?), fear and fragility. It’s a strange dawning – daunting, even – to recognize how fragile people are. And how willing they are to put their fragility on display.

“How could she allow herself to break down like that, in front of everybody? Jane had never understood this willingness on the part of these from-aways to peel up the scabs of their emotions and let everyone see their festering sores. They were like children that way. They had no shame and even less self-control.” –Red Hook Road, Ayelet Waldman

Even the strongest ones. But the strongest ones have ways to cope and get through; they have people they can turn to. The weakest, well, they don’t have reserves to deplete. And some of them, like parasites, move on to deplete others of their reserves. Once depleted, though, there is just nothing left. Each experience leaves us empty, feeling as though we will never feel again. Sure, we will feel. We will make long strides. We will sprout a joystick. We will feel enthusiasm and excitement and stirring.

But to get there, we (I) must (know how to) walk away, whatever it costs. And sit alone, quietly, in a room.

The aged: A life of training

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“How the gravitational field behaves when it heats up is still an unsolved mystery.” – Seven Brief Lessons in Physics (Carlo Rovelli)

J said to me: “You seem to be someone who is blissfully, refreshingly, enviably free of… pressure.”

Perhaps this too is an unsolved mystery. It took time to be this calm. Or indifferent. (Picture John Hannah here, menacingly responding to an entreaty to calm down: “I’ve never been more calm.” I’d include the video but couldn’t find it.) Pressure isn’t building, even if heat bubbles up under the surface. That’s different: but how does the gravitational field behave when it heats up? We all want to know. But it’s probably not a pressure cooker.

Calm, one would think, comes with age. But not really. It’s an individual thing. Some continue to grow more uptight, rigid and agitated as time goes on and responsibilities, decisions and grievances accumulate. I, on the other hand, have moved slowly in the opposite direction. Is it some discipline that was once conscious that shifted imperceptibly into a natural, unconscious behavior? Some form of lifelong training?

FROM The Spirit of Place
-Adrienne Rich

Are we all in training for something we don’t name?
to exact reparation for things
done long ago to us and to those who did not

survive what was done to them    whom we ought to honor
with grief    with fury    with action
On a pure night    on a night when pollution

seems absurdity when the undamaged planet seems to turn
like a bowl of crystal in black ether
they are the piece of us that lies out there
knowing    knowing    knowing

But it does not matter. Not the why or how. Just that I am.

Many things that end up attributed to age, aging or being aged, may not in fact be related to age. Duh. Experience, and perhaps even more importantly, openness to experience, imbues one with a curiosity and, as Erich Fromm describes it, a concentration/sensitivity. It is learning to stand on your own two feet, to be freely alone, to embrace patience, to be sensitive not only to oneself but to others. I am not always good at these things, but it is a process:

“If I am attached to another person because I cannot stand on my own feet, he or she may be a lifesaver, but the relationship is not one of love. Paradoxically, the ability to be alone is the conditions for the ability to love. Anyone who tries to be alone with himself will discover how difficult it is.”

“To have an idea of what patience is one need only watch a child learning to walk. It falls, falls again, and falls again, and yet it goes on trying, improving, until one day it walks without falling. What could the grown-up person achieve if he had the child’s patience and its concentration in the pursuits which are important to him!”

Mature sex: Stay calm, but hot

Embracing age, being alone and even the fundamentals of unconditional love (as a concept), we are still left with our bodies and the demands they make. And then what is most telling is how one thinks about the sexuality of the aged/aging. I’m calm, facing the realities of wild and dramatic corporeal metamorphosis (when is the body not changing, either from uncontrollable forces or our own manipulations?) and half a lifetime of experience and observation. I know the story isn’t finished. We are not a very mature society, at least from an anglo-world perspective, imagining sexuality to be the domain of the young, nubile, and virile, turning away from and denying that it may very well drive us at all ages, continuing to add fuel to the fire of our lives, until the end.

In a somewhat related sphere, I have come to evaluate the people I meet based on how they react to a specific film: Cloud 9/Wolke 9 (a German film – not the Disney film). I wrote about it before. Basically it’s a story of average, normal senior citizens and their love and sex lives. It acknowledges how the body, how the perspectives, how the perceptions, how the wants and desires change. Do you stop wanting sex – or, more importantly, the intimacy of being with someone with whom you can talk and laugh and be understood through it all just because you’re old? No. I keep coming back to and referring to this film. Not that it was a masterpiece, but I have rarely seen these issues that we will all face depicted in a real, honest and stark way. Somehow “old people sex” as a topic is the butt of sitcom jokes and lines the pockets of big pharma.

I tell everyone I meet about Cloud 9 and gauge their reaction. I don’t love or rely on knee-jerk reactions and wholesale judgments based on something like this, but their immediate reaction gives me a glimpse of how the person works – and ultimately about their respect and compassion for the aged, for others, for themselves – and the aged people we will all become. A reaction of disgust or laughter causes me to pull back mentally. And frankly this is the reaction I usually get. Except from senior citizens, generally, although even they often tell me, “I would not want to see that.” Then I actually brought it up with someone recently, who said, “I saw that film at a festival. I found it very moving.”

After wading through so much nonsense, and living a life of experience and training “for something we don’t name”, that is exactly what I wanted to hear.

Photo (c) 2013 pelican used under Creative Commons license.

Free: Hit the nail on the head

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…rambling… trying to sort through some thoughts and feelings… all seems trivial given the state of things in the world, but i can’t change the running commentary in my head…

Some days, you are just going along, getting stuff done, and someone reaches out after ages – years even – and says/writes something offhandedly that strikes a nerve, hits the nail on the head… and it happens to come at a timely moment. It might not have registered at all any other time – and in this case not all of it does – but the fear and the preference for being alone stuff certainly does. But it also prompts thoughts that finally move you beyond the confines of the walls you’ve lived inside and how you had been thinking but didn’t realize as well as ways you’ve defined yourself and let yourself be defined, even unconsciously.

“I know you are a nice person, but for sure many people would say you are wild, weird, lonely, and maybe more weird. But I know you are just protecting yourself from suffering and especially from men that can wish to play with you. You are genuine, you dare to say things, maybe much more with family, unknowns or friends than with your own partner. You would love to share, but are too much on the defensive as you are scared of bad endings.

I believe you have everything to scare a man. Intelligence, intellectually independent, financially autonomous; either you attract men who want to play with you and very quickly you kick them out of your life, or I’m so sure that so many will run away from you as they cannot reach you. They are too macho and only want to have power on you, but they do not understand that you are not a weak woman, so they run away or you get rid of them.

I was wondering what can be wrong with you. It happened to me to think you were probably too selfish, too independent and really too wild. But I’m sure you are not. This is what people can see from your outside. That is not you at all, you are just tired of wasting your time with stupid men and prefer to stay alone.” -French guy

These impressions from someone who never knew me that well – but apparently knew me better than I imagined – made me mope around a bit. Yeah a lot of this stuff is true – I recognize the pattern (and have been stuck in this “going through old papers and being struck by patterns” mode of late), but there is a bigger picture that I do suddenly see. I have known, of course, as I am relatively self-aware, that I am defensive, that my brain erects walls for me that I am not even aware of any more it’s become so automated, and that I prefer to stay alone … but only partly for those defensive reasons. I prefer to stay alone because I like to be alone. It is, most of all, my way of being free – and living most authentically (Camus), even when it is painful. And to want to not be alone – it takes something tremendous and almost otherworldly to make me want it.

I have occasionally tried to tell myself that being with someone else – the right someone else – might enhance who I am (and who they are). But more often than not, being with someone else, it is frustrating, and I end up suffocating the part of me that I like most – the part that probably attracts others to me in the first place. (I have witnessed this same syndrome in friends when they pair off and find themselves miserable and wonder what happened. This is what happened: You inadvertently kill the free person that you – and they – love(d).) You don’t mean to; you just do. Is it possible, if you are this kind of person, to be with someone else and keep that free person alive and forgo subsuming yourself and your needs somewhere within or beneath theirs? If so, I have not yet figured out how.

This carefree, spontaneous, open person who takes risks and action and moves forward no matter what can become stifled, bogged down in things that are not even mine, completely without conscious realization. It just happens. I have written about it before (both the caretaking side that takes control and agonizes before the eventual and the inevitable indifference monster comes calling as well as the seeming one-sided nature of these things, as evidenced in the mismatch among people’s words, actions and obvious priorities. And of course the “fuck-yes test”, which I think I would benefit from returning to again and again to remind myself) without fully appreciating what I was stating. Here and here and here and here and a whole lot more.

Half of me is an inveterate caretaker with nothing or no one to care for (which I guess is why it is so easy to shift from just being generally supportive to letting emotions be overrun by caring about someone else when they are going through unpleasant and confusing stuff). In another person’s worries, cares, indecision and flight from or fright of whatever is going on in their own lives and heads, the me who lives freely becomes too wrapped up in the minutiae of caring about them, trying to make sure they are not drowning, absorbing their doubts and worries. This part of my nature – the stable caretaker – takes over and becomes hesitant, reserved, emotionally idle – “always afraid to say more than it meant” (Auden, “The Letter”) or afraid to say too much, not being able to take it back. Too careful.

Nothing wrong with any of it except that when I take on that role, I become someone else, someone I do not like very much, especially if it starts to consume me or become the primary focus of the interaction with the other person. The marshmallow of my well-hidden insides starts to melt while an almost passive-aggressive, gooey pain seeps out of my pores. And it’s no one’s fault. Not the other person’s. Not mine. It just is: On the surface a feeling of being like – or fearing being like – an auxiliary but subjective amateur therapist who will offer true and deep understanding and care, along with observations, advice and opinions. Underneath, it is clear that I perform these tasks – willingly and lovingly – despite knowing with a reasonable amount of certainty (and simultaneously fearing and wishing it were not so) that I am merely a stepping stone to whatever comes next in a person’s life. I may be a one-woman transition team.

And it’s this deepening realization on being free (and what it means to me) and the role(s) I play in other people’s life dramas that relieves me of recent little agonies, confusion and worries, that frees me finally from the definition I had lived by but had never actually defined.

I have a choice (and somehow never felt like I did). Both of these parts, conflicting or not, are equally part of me. With or without doubts, I don’t relish the idea of looking back on my life and thinking I had abandoned either principle: my freedom or care/love/compassion. It may be difficult to strike, as all balances are, but is it not worth “a little hour or more/To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came/To soothe a time-torn man…” (Thomas Hardy)?

“In any situation, no matter how confining, you have a choice. To believe you do not, is to choose not to choose.”

“If we seek to lose ourselves in the world, we are eluding. We are seeking a diversion from knowing ourselves or tending our own soul.”

“We must choose to live in this world and to project our own meaning and value onto it in order to make sense of it. This means that people are free and burdened by it, since with freedom there is a terrible, even debilitating, responsibility to live and act authentically.” -Camus

Photo (c) 2008 Jon Mitchell.