The morning is cool and still, dimly lit underneath a light washed peach colored sky. As I sip coffee and listen to the birds singing wild and free outside my window, it occurs to me that I can’t go back to the way I was, and I sure as fuck don’t know how to move forward. The gurus would tell us to “be here now” I suppose, so perhaps I’ll start with that. My body is here now typing of course, but my mind skims over the happenings of the past few weeks. I would rather not obsess over what has transpired, but alas, such is the nature of an obsession. You can’t want the thing you want the most. It’s all a flutter, a multifaceted blur of emotion, drama, karma, clashes, fits of anger, sadness, rage, fear, lit up here and there with tiny flecks of shimmering hope. Not sure what if anything you know about me by now but I am just like everybody else. Neuroses, addictions, stupid mistakes, bad choices, dirty desires. The thing is no one is ever completely themselves on the outside, and I am no different. On the inside I am wracked with dreams, visions, ideas, heartaches, shadows, secrets. When I get it right, I can write of these internal things, I can conjure them, send them shooting up like bright flares into the dark velvet skies of night. Do you see me? Have we connected if only in the few seconds my hidden light scatters itself across your beautiful face, as you gaze up at the stars praying for the same absolution I do? In a few days I will be by the sea, this I look forward to very much. I have missed the expansive sight of the ocean, the sunlight flashing along the waves in the morning, bathing in tangerine and electric pinks at dusk. In times of extreme turmoil it seems only natural to reach for surroundings which remind us of who we really are, which ground us in the tangible, textured elements of earth, wind, fire, water. What is the story you tell about yourself to the ones you love? Do you tell it straight out or do you bend it toward who you want to be, someone better, more brave and less afraid? Toward who you wish you were, or who you wish they thought you were when they look at you? If the past is an illusion and the future anyone’s guess, perhaps all I can tell you is this: I’m here now. And in a world as mad as this one, I try very hard not to lose myself. I chart out plans, and write poetry, read the news, pack my bags, and just like you, I make my bets on what any of this might be worth.
It is possible to be out of words, I know because it terrifies me as often as not, it comes and goes. I am a writer and it happens all the time but being out of words is easy, you just write some more until you can start to fit them together and make a little story. Make them into something people like to look at, look through, make their own, or project back onto you. Then again, it is possible to be so full of words you are choked by them into a crippling type of silence. They could be your own words, they could be the words of those around you, it has become harder and harder to tell. And there are so many people around you. So many, many voices. Telling you what to do and feel and think, how to act, who to believe!!! Who to believe. But you need to decide that for yourself. Through the noise, you peel back the curtain and you make your selections. You carve out a cause and you make a sign. Women and children and men in any order. So many voices around you. Perhaps they’ll tell you what to say. But it’s nothing you haven’t heard before only now it’s very loud. Only now it is louder and louder. And the ones lifting you up are the ones holding you down. But all you want is to be touched anyway so little by little there are tiny erosions in the difference. It is possible the end is near or, even worse, the beginning. It could be we are only just at the beginning of increased cruelty, well, some of us. (It’s a continuum, you see. Don’t you see?) This seems most likely, although they would prefer you don’t speak about that. “They.” Such a spooky term to use. How jarring to have it fall from my fingertips so easily. And to understand exactly what I mean so clearly, unequivocally. (Did you?) They need to pull us apart to get inside where they can do the rest of the job they came to do. There are cracks in the ceiling. My eyes trail over them back and forth as I listen to the voices. Listen. Listen. Listen. Sounds like skin. I suck the smoke through the gaps in my teeth. I swallow. I spit. I break a fingernail and chew. See if you can notice the inflections in the tone, the sarcasm and the degradation. See if you can get at your own sense of worth in spite of everything else trying to convince you otherwise. Recite the words in small phrases, small bites. Try to go fast without thinking, you know what that’s probably it: you probably just think too much. Forget it. Just select your five hundred words a day. It’s okay if this was really tough for you to put together. It’s okay if they don’t understand you right away. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.
It’s all connected. Your art. Your expression. Your fear. Your love. Your lust. Your sin. Your addiction. Your joy. Your power. Your beauty. Your friendships. Your lovers. Your interests. Your dreams. Your shame. Your needs. Your wants. Your voice. Your visions. Your escapes. What you hide. What you share. What you offer. What you deny. What you withhold. What you study. What you focus on. What you value. What you worship. What you believe. What you refuse to accept about who you are. The illusion is that you have to choose. Your soul comes not in pieces, but whole. The secret is to open your heart and mind and being to all of it. To swallow it whole, and accept and accept and accept. This is to heal. This is to recover, which can also mean to reclaim, to re-discover, to reveal, to uncover, to get back all of who you are.
Unsure of how to begin, I dive right to the center, or the middle, or the edges, I am never exactly certain which but I begin the nibble hoping to progress to a full meaty bite. Chewing on this life, this life the whole of which stands trembling before death as it has and does and always will on any given day of the week until the end. The Rest. The Final. I would tell you all about me but I fear it would shock or bore you so I dress it up as best I know how with a textural mix of sex and violence and drama and then try to weave my way back to the intricacies of the beginning so that you, and I, and we, the collective, can feel some sense of closure as we drift inside a tiny sliver of space within a world which is a never ending labyrinth of potential openings, doors, some already opened, some closed, some locked, some unlocked though we never know this because the fear of the other side is enough to keep us from even attempting to turn the knob and see. The terror of the blank page. The white blazing blindness of the vast empty and the threat of the desire to fill the void. To drain and fill the mind. Consciously. That of which we are aware. That which we deny. To re-fill the mind. To discard the old, not bury it, no dirty fingernails or ceremonial tears, but to stride deliberately into the darkness and set it on fire, thoroughly engulfed in flame and watch as the smoke rises into the hollow midnight sky. The piercing through of the ancients. The cutting of the heart, the suffering which is cathartic, which is relief. I am asleep, however, and unaware until dawn. I am clean. I am pure as in the womb, voiceless, warm and alone. The blood is red in the open air, it runs the distance which is blue, which is the track of the tubes of circulation which is a prayer, the prayer of kinetic energy, the prayer of budding teeth, a rosary of extending bone. The embers glowing as splits, flecks of eyes simmering out in the cold. Looking down into my own palms, I am this body and this age. I am beyond this moment as I am under it as I am moving toward it and away. I am these dreams I am desperate to speak of, but hold back. No more. No more, when there is no future whispering in the olive distance. No more, when the mist of this morning is a hall of mirrors hung upon the backs of doors which close and open, close as they open. Look into my eyes. Place your fingers in my wounds. Spread your lips beneath the wild gaping charcoal sky. Are you thirsty. Are you willing. Open, open, open.
“Getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.”
― Rebecca Solnit,
As I move through the days, I realize more and more that I feel desperate for a world that is more thoughtful, contemplative, aware, awakened, transformed. Desperation, though, is not anything I can work with, this wishing for a different kind of world, as that is not within my control. What I can work with, however, is myself. So I am taken recently with the idea of doing inner work with myself in a way I wish society and the outer world at large would take the time to do before emerging from this gruesome pandemic. You see, I don’t want to go blindly back, I want to move forward transformed. And my fear is that too many people want the former even as I am starved for the latter. I am hungry for a transformation of some kind to take place both within and around me.
I have admired Rebecca Solnit for so many years I can’t even recall when I first was introduced to her work, save to say it was a long while ago. But I had never before read her incredibly eloquent, insightful book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. It has come into my life just a few days ago and met me exactly where I am in my -sometimes/often rattled- mind and soul. (Incidentally, the irony of a book about being lost finding me where I am in the dark right now is not. . . ahem, lost on me.)
There is a quote by Henry David Thoreau which I find quite poignant: “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves,” that resonates very deeply and profoundly with me in this present moment, some nine weeks into isolation. In a sense, I do feel I have lost the world, lost connection to it, not completely of course, but very much so in many ways. And I find it such a gift to have this extended period of time to turn inward, to take the journey into my own heart and mind and ask the big existential questions. What is most important to me in my life? What is my purpose here? What will I do with my gifts, interests, passions, ideas, thoughts, visions? What do I want to explore moving forward into a brand new phase of life, expression, creativity?
I am privileged to be able to spend time inside of myself with very little outside stress. I am safe, many are not. And I cringe every time I hear someone say “We just need to get back to normal.” I physically wince inside as though I have been struck because I am afraid of the grave mistake of going back to the old idea of normal. The idea that we need to rush to the end of a major global catastrophe and quickly forget it ever even happened. Well, I don’t want the world to forget. I don’t want to forget. And I don’t want to rush out. Not out of my house, not out of this moment in this one precious life of mine when so much is being revealed, our weaknesses exacerbated and our strengths tested at every turn. I want to sink inward and search for what I need to find, what I need to understand about what this experience is teaching me. Turn toward what is calling to me to be still and listen, to learn, to be made new. I want to be changed. Opened. I seek answers. Revelations. Insights. Discoveries. Magic. Mystery. We are all lost right now. We are surrounded by the unforeseen, the unknown, and the unknowable. Isn’t this where rich art is born? Out of uncertainty? Out of the searching for the secrets within? Out of being lost, and found, by ourselves in darkness?
In a beautifully elegant passage from A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit writes:
“Edgar Allen Poe declared, ‘All experience in matters of philosophical discovery, teaches us that, in such discovery, it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely.’ Poe is consciously juxtaposing the word ‘calculate’ which implies a cold counting up of the facts or measurements, with ‘the unforeseen,’ that which cannot be measured or counted, only anticipated. How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.” (emphasis mine)
For me, this is the very essence of the creation of art of every kind. A collaboration with chance, with the dare, with the unknown, the unseen. An acceptance, and even a welcoming, rather than a rejection or denial of the unforeseen, the incalculable, the mysterious force with which we interact in order to transform and be transformed.
“In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of a doctor who ‘knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.” Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (emphasis mine)
We have, in a sense, lost the world, lost contact with much of it. Lost control of much of it. Lost the illusions of a control we thought we had but in truth never did. We are experiencing grief, rupture, disintegration, decay. I don’t want to have gone through all of this mind bending upheaval and have learned nothing, to have nothing to show for it, nothing to emerge with when we see each other again. I want to find the gifts of this moment in time, brutal, surprising, breathtaking, and honest as they may be. Through all the heartache, I need to know it was worth something. That there is something in me I can still give, and a place within me which is still open to receiving.
The truth is, there is no going back, there never is. And I wouldn’t want there to be. I want to move forward, to be transformed into a new person, a new being with deeper awareness and intimate insights and renewed perspectives on everything. I want that for myself and I want it for the world. But I can only take care of myself. So I start in my own mind, my own body, my own spirit, my own soul. I read about getting lost and more and more, I am finding the deep abiding wisdom which can only be revealed in silence, in isolation. I cling to the hope of my soul’s voice, as wide as an ocean, wild, powerful, roaring, steady, ancient, shimmering in the dark.
My mouth is dry from cigarettes and wine and as I fumble my arm around in the dark reaching for my water glass, I knock the full thing over and listen as the liquid I desperately need down my throat now trickles down the bedside table instead. Fuck. It’s two in the morning and my veins are thundering blood through my thin body like the threat of a thousand wild horses set to stampede across my chest. I get these weird sensations once in a while. Palpitations or so they say, mostly it just feels like fluttering ruptures which are not unpleasant, just startling. I think about thinking and when I do, I do it too hard and can’t seem to make it stop. I meditate in the mornings, I think it helps but my mind wanders to places it shouldn’t and anxiety creeps into the tiny cracks where anxiety had previously let me alone, hence the wine and the cigarettes and the various attempts made at poetry or whatever else comes to creative mind. A lot of people are making those cut apart collages these days and sharing them online. We jam foreign objects together hoping to disintegrate the distance keeping us alive. We dabble and we try things and we make a mess and glue it all back together only upside down with glitter and we take pills to help us sleep all the while the rocky stars peer down, unfeeling in a cold vast place we will only ever dream about but never see up close. In times like these when time both races past and stands still as death all the same, it’s hard to tell if the ache in my bones comes from sitting too long in one place hunched over myriad books, notes, and screens or because every time I skim through social media feeds my chest contracts and my shoulders end up hung tight from my earlobes. Such a shit show, such a crying shame of a situation every which way you look at it. Staring at the dark wooden blades of the ceiling fan as they whirl in a silent circle of blackness, I can just make out the dim lines where hazy blue moon glow sharpens their rotating edges. If I hold my breath, I can hear the faintest movement of the air splitting itself to let the slats of the fan pass through. That’s what I need. Something which cuts through the noise and allows the thinness of my soul to slide on through. I move a warm hand underneath the blankets and place it on my bare stomach. My heart quickens at my own tender touch. I stroke my own skin, feel my own body. I bite my soft lip, and turn my head to take note of the time. My eyes and the dark halls of my strung out mind, still searching.
Tracing the outline of a tiny penciled in flower in my notebook, I’m listening to some guy speak stale office speak on a video call as my mind drifts out the open window into the honeyed springtime air of late afternoon. It’s a little after three and I’m already fading into fantasies of a smooth glass of wine in the back garden as the setting tangerine sunlight glistens along the water beaded stem. My mind just stops these days. Where I used to go, go, go on to the next, now I am halted in body and spirit by a peculiar feeling I have never known before. A feeling like an uncomfortably extended dramatic pause. It is the sensation of a life suspended, suddenly stilled, thrown into stark relief. An inability to move as the rest of the world appears to be rushing by without so much as a sideways glance in my direction. I am left behind. No, I am being left behind; it is a process I am forced to watch happening over and over and over each day. Rewind and repeat. While there are those who fetishize a return to normal, there are also those of us who know that would be a terrible mistake. We wonder how we got here in the first place. Too many wrong turns down dark and ruinous roads. We always think we will see it coming or at least have some inkling, some clue, how far in which direction we should go. But there is no should and there is no road carved neatly along a path not yet taken. Pouring a coffee, I exit the call and sink down into a pile of books wondering where to begin a thing which has long since already begun and ended a countless number of times before. This life, they’ll have you fooled well into believing it is a straight line when nothing could be farther from the truth. How often the future ends up tossing you three steps back even as the ghosts of the past loom larger in your mind than they may appear in the rear view mirror. I remember the first warm Sunday afternoon of the season, driving fast with the windows down, swaths of sunlight rushing across his face, cast down through the trees which line an empty old riverside town. We laugh as we race the back roads just to feel like we’re getting somewhere. To make the rings around our circuitous lives stretch and blur until they finally disappear.
Morning sun intrudes. The blank screen glows dull in comparison while neither offer a lick of inspiration. Stick figure cursor blinks, blinks, blinks and some things never seem to change. Before I even think to do it myself, he brings me a second cup of coffee and when he kisses me I drown in that beautiful mouth. There are some kisses which need nothing else before or after. He knows this, and I love this madly about him. The coffee is strong as I sip while gazing out across the tree tops, they bend this way and that with the rush of a strong gust of cool wind. It’s all too bright, it all causes my eyes to change. The spring breeze sweeps in across a handmade Italian statue of the blessed virgin, curtains billowing into the quiet study. I think about all the women I have been. All the women in me. There is the cusp of something in the smallness of the hours I try to curl my fingers around. Something to grasp, something to take hold of to pull me up out of this hazy confusion which seems to have overtaken me. Writing is impossible. The words, each and every word is tough as nails. The days stretch out languid before me. I fill them with books and try to imagine what comes next. I think perhaps too hard, perhaps not hard enough, about the things we can control and the things we cannot. Everyone seems to draw their own conclusions. Anger and fear overwhelm so I shut everything down. Close the media feeds, click off the screens. Video faces of friends, bored and alone making cocktails, making no plans for nothing at all. The distance between this fresh morning and the rest of what is to come is impossible to measure. We are unsure in the handling of the minutes inside our daily lives. We are empty pages, hesitant. Walking alone out onto the edge of nothing certain yet to come.
Tearing through my shredded mind in an attempt to calm my nerves enough to get even a few words down on the page, I feel the claws of my thoughts peeling back my insides like piercing the fleshy innards of a ripened fruit. I don’t know what the substance of the mind is made up of but in this moment, for reasons inexplicable, I imagine it pliable, fragrant, seeded, slippery, and sweet. Blinking back tears which never seem to fall, screens flash all across the neighborhood, the shriek of bloodshot cartoons, the absurdity of protesting mobs, blue and orange charts, plots, graphs, curves measured out on dotted lines meant to quantify the exact number of and projected increase in the local, regional, and global death counts. Real tears break in real time in a fake panorama world. Sun rise, sun fall. There is a cruelty in the air which shoves the bones of the trees around on my block, I listen to the expectant green leaved branches rustle and sway in submission from my upstairs window. Tell me to kneel. Tell me what you’ll do to me. When you tip my chin back, I spread my legs. The sky rolls in dark and heavy, threatening clouds thickly pregnant with a coming torrential rain. I want it so badly. The storm, the wetness, the rhythmic assault upon a soft yielding earth. All day long my body craves relief from a feeling I am unaccustomed to, a feeling which teeters somewhere along the culminated edge of dissatisfaction and rage.
I have too many books going at once. I have too many media feeds, too many lines interrupting my concentration, lines remembered, lines yet to be written, lines in hopscotch patterns chalked on the pavement. People crowd my dreams in lines threaded through one another. Waiting. Fidgeting. Waiting to board a plane, a train, a bus or some kind of transportation which never actually arrives. I shuffle in with a crowd, realize I am missing my shoes, or my bag, or some such thing which I misplaced and try desperately to remember where I left the item while weighing in my mind whether or not I can fetch it and make it back in line in time to board the aircraft. Or whatever vessel we await to move us out of here and over to there. Safety in a storm. Your massive hands upon my minuscule waist.
Suddenly, a shrill voice pierces the chaos over an intercom, announcing the name of the destination country, which I do not recognize enough to place, only just enough to know I should be afraid. How did I get here? What am I doing in this crowd? Face coverings, covering, covering, covering mouths, panicked eyes in skulls devoid of tongues. But somehow I wake myself, remove myself from the nightmare of the dream to feel my own eyes wide open to the darkness gaping all around me in a silent worn out room. Beside me, my lover sleeps soundly, as my sight adjusts to the bare thin traces of light around the edges of the window. The silver sliver of the moon meets my gaze, hovering high, a weary yellow eyelid nearly closed. As if to remind me of my lowly place among nocturnal things. This carousel of madness. Around and around this mirrored stem we go.
Reaching an outstretched hand into the future by attempting to let go of the past, I light up a cigarette while contemplating the strangeness of living within the confines of these four dusty sun drenched walls for weeks on end. It’s as if within me I can feel the heavens spinning about in outer space without relent, without a feeling or care about the turmoil we find ourselves mired in on this tiny ink blot below. Humans are ignorant creatures, for as much as we’d like to congratulate ourselves there are countless instances where we miss the mark entirely and never so much as come close to picking up the pieces of the shattered lives we leave behind. If you pay too close attention you will exhaust yourself which is likely why I feel so tired all the time. I take a drag of my smoke and sip hot black coffee while eyeing up the jumble of tangled words on my screen. I’m a mess as is this room but what is life if not chaos, if not disaster tossed around inside little flecks of hope. The afternoon light is coming in slanted from the side of the window, landing in soft patches upon the plants, the little tables and statues, lamps and books, and I think of the way you turn me on my side in the early light of morning. Trailing your rough hands along the bare curves of my body as you sigh with audible delight. We are only light and shadow, sun and moon, circling. Shaking my head in order to return to the writing which seems to so easily elude my jagged brain riding it out upon these choppy hours, it occurs to me that anxiety burns just beneath the surface of my skin. The room is silent, save for the sound of little birds fluttering by and the single drone of an airplane as it moves lazily overhead. The wings of the little butterfly clock on the wall tick softly as I curl deeper and deeper into myself. I once knew a man who only wore black. He lined his eyes in charcoal and could write poetry that would cut you clean in two. Just the thought of him now ignites my veins, tears at the feathered cage of my ribs, grasping in my memory for an image, a line, a motion of his body that used to collapse earth into sky. What I wouldn’t give to write just once sentence in the way of the brilliance which twisted and glittered in the secret patterns of his hallway mind. He would open his mouth like opening a doorway into a land promised only to the sacred, only for those who worshiped the darkness of his razor sharp tongue. Most of us are corrupted and we spend our entire lives trying to hide it from everyone around us. But some of us. There are some, very few, who hold tight to their wicked and wield it just perfectly so, to make it shine.