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.
You expect me to be slick and clever, witty and warmly engaging but today I am none of those things. Today I am a dark cloud hovering. Pent up. Swollen. My tears and my nerves pressing against the grain inside my skin. As the rain moves in I sink into my study but I cannot concentrate. I am distracted by the stacks of books, the words and thoughts, the poetry of others. Jumping back and forth from The New Yorker to Baudelaire, I run a hand across my forehead wondering who in the hell I am anymore. When all this is over, I won’t want to go back to the way it was before. I will want to stay at home. I will want to be away from people just like I always have. I won’t want to get dressed. There are days when you are so sure, so positively certain, that nobody cares. You sink into the lowest parts of your own human heart and you can feel the blank sadness. You can feel the grip of the lonely. Hear her sighs. Fold into them, watch the rain falling down quiet and soft against the trees, the grass, the little angel statue in the garden. I think of all the losses suffered all across the world, the sheer staggering amount of grief and pain. My whole being is crushed beneath the collective weight. I try to dream up a new vision to keep me going. I make tea. I help a young writer to remember who she is, encourage her to pay attention to each of her feelings, especially the dark ones. The shadows swallow the fear and live with it alone in corners. I don’t know why I am drawn to the them, the shadows, the corners, the hidden, the untraceable. I don’t know why but there is nothing more beautiful to me than the sun blotted out, shielded over, drowned in the wet sweetness of the rain.
Reading Rilke’s love letters on a windy Saturday morning, I can see the empty trees waving, flexing, bending wildly in the bright open air as tiny purple clouds sail on by. Winds of change, the seasons swim out to meet one another, rise and fall on wave upon wave. The coffee is strong and hot, like the love we made which so opened me I’m certain it caused the fires of the sun itself to rise up over the distant hills before spreading its warm elegant golden fingers down along the gray walls around us. I watch the angle of the light carefully, softened by its rays as they are reflected off of a grand gilded mirror which leans heavy against the far wall. I suddenly remember something a sensual woman once taught me about sacred geometry, but as soon as I envision her pretty wet doe eyes gazing into mine, I’ve just as quickly forgotten. Wrapped in linen and lace, in my bones I feel the echoes of ancient stories welling up within me like quiet piercing tears desperate to fall. I swallow them until the ache is too much to bear, and I have to pour forth upon the pages not yet written. There is something in me which needs to be expressed, though at times I feel it is beyond me, or that try as I might I will never be able to touch it, to wrap my being around it. It is mine and not mine, it is here and it is gone. Its voice is a hollow, a begging, a melancholy love song written at the peak of the ripened sweetness of the pain. I write the truth and I write the fantasy, and one lies within the other until it all blurs into an ecstatic kind of fever dream, one I can at last be with myself inside. There are people who will tell you dreams are for fools and fantasies are for fakes, but maybe I want fake, maybe I’ve been the fool all my life so why quit now. Maybe I want a malleable liquid existence where anything is possible, pleasure is a religion, and rules no longer apply. Open your ribs and let me caress what disturbs you. Paint your wicked story so vividly for me that it blooms forth in my mind long after we speak. Listen to yourself. Be quiet and be still. Listen to the blood as it slides beneath your tranquil skin. Listen for the darkness beating its silent drum in your precious veins. Why is it that you are so afraid to live there? Why would you ever leave that place when it is all that you are, when it is the only thing you have worth giving?
Hello out there, how are you doing? I am thinking of you, wondering with you what will today bring? What is today? What day is this day. And what I felt like sharing today is so far away from what I usually share. It is a sort of behind the scenes of my creativity, my process, my writing, my craft, my art. I have been wanting to reach out in so many multiple directions lately but I keep cutting myself off because, well I don’t even know why exactly, I guess I had it in my head that a writer or a creator should have a certain bend, like be a certain kind of writer, only write certain things about certain topics in certain ways. But then that feels boring to me, I think that’s the thing, I do get bored. I have liked to evolve over time, delving into new things when the old things feel limiting, new ways of expression.
But anyway I was reflecting on the topic of women and desire. I think because the days stretch out right now like blank pages you can fill with anything you want. But what do I want? Like you can do anything, but what do you want to do. Not what you have to or should do but what is it that I want to do? Want to study? Want to create? Want to try?
I did this weird thing where in my journal I took a whole full page and just wrote the words “I want” over and over and over until the word ‘want‘ seemed like it didn’t even mean anything, you know how that happens? If you keep saying or writing a single word over and over somehow your brain goes numb to it. So ‘want’, I had to remind myself how to spell it but I kept writing it until I filled the entire page. I didn’t write what I want, because I don’t know what I want. I really don’t. As long as I can remember I have been full of longing, a need, a feeling like something in me is begging me to get it something, do something to fulfill it. Soothe it. Hear it, listen to it, turn toward it. Look at it. But I do not know what it wants me to do, I don’t know what it wants.
I wonder if this is because I am a woman who grew up as a little girl hungry to express, to create, to pour forth. I was taught subtly and directly, right, not so subtly, too be small, quiet, still, grateful for whatever I got. I was taught not to be hungry. Not to ever want, and certainly not to ever want more. I was taught that my desires, my true human desires, were ‘bad.’ I was taught that to want was greedy. If you want nothing, you are easier to be around. Not wanting is nice. Not wanting is sweet, kind, loving. Not wanting is good. Wanting is bad. And so now, and for as long as I can remember, when someone, some motivational, inspirational someone whoever it may have been, when they said to me Dream or Desire or Imagine… I would have a very hard if not impossible time doing so. I would shut down, go blank, go numb. I have been unable to Dream because I don’t allow myself to want. I have often been unable to name, seek, or explore my Desire because what I want is considered by some to be bad and bad is not allowed. If you want to be loved, you have to be good. I have been unable to Imagine because imagination means conjuring up what you want inside your mind.
But now in this alone time, this extended alone time, I have decided I want to want what I want, and I want to know what it is that I want. So I wrote in my journal ‘I want’ a thousand consecutive times just to feel the words in myself. Just to get them out onto the page, make them real in the real tangible world. To break through to myself and my want, my desire, my hunger, my need, my ache, my essence. I do not have the answer yet to this inner restlessness, this inner question “Allison, what do you want? What do you want your life to be? What do you want to do with yourself? What is your most burning desire?”
But I am hoping that by preparing the way, by repeatedly making it okay to say I want, over and over, my desires will break through and show themselves to me. And because I will be ready, I will touch them, feel them, hear them, listen to them, turn toward them. Accept and welcome and cherish and act on them. Make them real.