Finding Myself: Reflections On Self-Transformation During Quarantine

“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, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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.

 

Pet

Perhaps what frightens me most is not having done it well enough to feel complete before I’m erased from this mad place for good. Perhaps I overcompensate, cut off my nose just to spite my face. The way I write the words like tossing smooth rose petals one by velvet one into the void which only widens as the time rolls on. Words like sharp knives flick themselves in my chest, trail little fires along the blue veins in my wrist. The mountains we scale inside our old cavernous souls, searching ourselves for signs of a life worth living, a life that is ours and ours alone. The blood we spill, the tears we cry, the tears which refuse to come and instead bloom into addiction, hidden hauntings, long halls of vibrating thoughts on repeat, on repeat, on repeat. The lovers we take into our darkened caves. Kiss them, fill them, tease them, kill them, walk away. I’m not looking for a savior. I don’t need your plastic Jesus Christ. If what’s within me isn’t enough already then I’ve got nothing more to offer you. Take this skin, take these bones and carry them off into the setting sun as it swallows this wracked planet down whole. It was Bukowski, of course, who nailed it: Don’t try. In some obscure interview decades ago he said it, That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it. How many have made a pet out of me. Fastened me with a slick leather leash and told me to crawl. Stroked my little animal head and led me straight into the pleasures of the moonlit gardens of hell.

Bad Place

You search, but you are more afraid of finding than you are of holding onto the mystery. I can see it in your eyes, there is so much more to you than you dare to reveal. I can’t say I blame you, of course, I’m the same way more often than not. But don’t you ever lie awake at dawn as the traffic rushes far down below, hear the screaming sirens, and wish for the ending of the games? Don’t you sometimes find yourself exhausted of the regular people with their mediocre thoughts, their flat unfeeling speeches? Take a person, one on one, and I will get them talking, they will turn themselves inside out and let me touch them anywhere. It’s not me, it’s just this thing I have where I am consumed with mad curiosity, perhaps it is love, perhaps it is just a sick perversion. Call it what you like, makes no difference to me. But the masses are a blindly obedient herd, and if this doesn’t scare the shit out of you I’m not sure there is much else for us to talk about. Privileged troubles I know, but the world is the world it is and here we are bathing in it like two wounded animals in the open early morning air. Don’t you think half the time I wish I were not like this? How pleasant it must be for the ones who think nothing of challenging everything, feel no sense of angst or frustration with the way things are or the way things go. What good is this life if you don’t create it on your own terms. What is there if not resistance, how can you tell if you are getting anywhere if you aren’t pushing against the onslaught of the status quo? We are living, right now, this very minute, as your palms sweat and your gum line itches, in a dystopian nightmare. Want proof? I just had to “add to dictionary” the word dystopia. It’s like nothing we have ever seen or experienced before, this being led by a lie, the truth is not the truth, strength is weakness, weakness strength. It’s not me it’s you, or is it the other way around and when did you stop being able to tell? And we play along and we finger ourselves, pleasure ourselves, buy the big toys. I want the things that matter but more and more I have trouble discerning just what they are. In a world, in a time, in a place, where the walls are on fire and the smoke clouds the mirrors in the haunted halls of my mind. Don’t you wish it were different? Don’t you wish there were more love? Don’t you wish that instead of feeding you fire and calling it water, someone would look you dead in the eye and finally acknowledge the flames?

Keep Telling Yourself

I’m thinking of him, though I try not to because only angst can come of it. But a seductive plaything he is none the less, and try as I might to concern myself with other things, my mind returns to the memory of his lips on my thigh inching higher and higher as we lay beneath a cloudy midnight sky, the glitter of the tall buildings of the city stacked twinkling below. The night he pressed into me so deeply I thought I would lose my mind right there at the mercy of his expert hands, his hot thick body, there was nothing to do but give in to our darkest temptations. And so, the parting of legs and the parting of lips and the opening up to the parts of yourself you try so hard to keep hidden, the neediness, the greed. Tongues like sweetness, tongues like snakes. Something in the sly of his smile destroys me, pleasure shooting through me like an ache you spent your whole life praying for, that exquisite melancholy ache impossible to resist. Drifting off into such dreams causes my mouth to water with poetry, words of lust and desire tumbling out of me onto the pages of a journal I’ve not touched in ages. There are roses in the margins, roses blooming thick inside the cage of my chest. There are those words which must be bled, and those words best scratched and burned into the secret fires of eternity instead, read only by the deities, accepted only into the dirty womb of the earth on which our hopeless little hearts blister and break. The day is sliding down, slow as gray rain on the distant tombstone hills as I arrive home, finally able to exhale the staleness of the remnants of whatever is leftover when the useless chatter of this life at last falls quiet. Shadows begin to enfold me, the first swallow of crisp white wine caressing my insides in fragrant plumes. So many faces, so many mouths, so few lines worth repeating for fear of turning into just another nobody who thinks that they’re somebody, though no one ever really cares to ask. Gazing out the window, my eyes scan faintly across the concrete miles as my pulse grows lazy. Somewhere out there, lovers embrace for the first time. And the trees in their cold naked skins, bow toward the whisper of spring.

Promise You, Trust Me

They want you to tell them what they want to hear, but they don’t know what they want. In my life, I have made myself into many forms of woman to fit in, to get along, to be what men want, to be what women want, to do what they say and please as I had been taught to please. But I never like myself much for it. Not as much as I like myself when I do what I love, what I crave, what I desire, in spite of the judgment of everyone else. So now I do not beg. And now I do not chase. And now I do not need anyone to tell me what I’ve done is good enough. In this world, evil rises. Cruelty reigns over many a nation, climate, industry, air wave. I am not sure how I missed this, or how I ever believed anything else. Childhood, protection, institutionalization, privilege, innocence. I still remember the exact feeling of pulling a knee sock up my little leg, sheer virgin white with a thick elastic band at the top. Tight. Tight to keep it up, where it was supposed to be, strangling the small area where the calf met the knee. When I would remove the sock upon returning home from school, I could still see the ridges, the red indentations left in the skin in a circular band just below the knee. I don’t have words to share that people want to hear. I don’t have stories worthy of telling. But if they would want me to, I could turn myself into one. I could be any kind of story they want, I know how. I have done it ten thousand times before. It’s easy once you get the hang of it. You just remove your eyes. Peel off your skin. Cut off your hands and pick apart your heart into a few hundred tiny pieces. And eat them. Swallow them down so that it doesn’t hurt so bad to need the love they promised if only you could just behave.

A Pain In the World So Great

A small black bird sits alone on a wire high above the street which winds around the train station. There is the guy who is always wearing the same thing: jeans, tee shirt, heavy boots, green army jacket, too big in the shoulders and too long for his thin frame. His back is slightly curved so he hunches over just a bit, making him look much older than I imagine he actually is. As he shuffles across the train tracks, he drinks a cup of coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts up on the highway and I get the impression this is not just a daily procession or a special ritual, but this is his entire life. Right here in this over sized old jacket walking slow along this side street by the train station into the misty morning fog, he walks, always in the same direction. Or maybe it’s just me making up stories about people I know exactly nothing about, just because I can see them, and I can’t help but wonder. What do they do? Where do they live? What are they worried about? What keeps them hanging on? Across town, there is a girl in an apartment building watering a plant which sits on a stand by the window. She’s going through some heavy shit, what with being a newly single mom, and the cancer they found in her mother’s breast. She tries to be a good girl even though she’s a grown up woman, tries to be a good daughter and a good mother and a good friend. She stays positive in front of everyone else though at night she closes the door and cries, but not tears because that would be the end of her. No tears fall because if they fall she falls apart never to get back up. Instead she cries bottles and bottles and she cries cigarettes on the back stairs under the gruesome yellow motion-sensor porch light the landlord installed for safety. Nothing feels safe now. But crumbling is not an option so she goes a little numb and she chews on the trembling fingers of anxiety and she keeps her sadness to herself. And everyone seems to think she’s a really good girl even though what she really wants to be is bad. Because bad is a choice you have to make, and a lot of times, good just feels the same as fear. In a stale high school classroom, a bunch of fidgety teenagers sit in their desks and listen to a lecture about the history of their country which has been re-written to make things seem less bleak and more noble, as the hands of the clock click slowly toward the rest of their lives. It’s strange the way time passes differently for all of us. We keep track of it as though it were the same, but it isn’t. For some it’s speeding by faster than they know. And the bird on the wire does not sing. He just flicks his pointy wings, once, twice. Tilts his tiny tick tock head. And watches.

Break Glass In Case of Emergency

I’m not sure it’s an emergency but then again I’m not sure how I got here so who’s to say when the urgency sets in. Can a person slowly slide toward their own demise without ever actually seeing it coming? Doesn’t matter. Across the street, a woman has placed a blessed mother statue in her front window facing outwards with palms raised and eyes cast downward. I’d say she’s done it as some sort of ritual prayer for good weather but she did it so many years ago now it’s hard to tell if it’s worked out as she’d hoped or not. It’s funny to me what people believe in, or I should say it used to be funny until it started becoming more and more absurd.  I am not a believer in much of anything but I do read tarot now and again and it stirs something in me, could be the idea of witches and magic, could be the pleasure of escape from the everyday world with its pragmatism and general low grade misery. I don’t think you need to believe, I think you just need to be open to making up your own story the way you want to. On the drive home, I passed the odd shaped one-level building tucked under tall pine trees back along a gravel road off the highway. It’s dark and seedy, the muddy color of wet bark and indignity. Used to be a sex shop but now it’s a kids day care center, made only slightly less grim by the cardboard cutouts of smiling red, blue, and yellow dancing crayons in the small front window. How much we endure between then and now. The grown ups I see, I can’t help but wonder what the hell they are thinking, or if they even think at all. So many random lives on autopilot, bodies and dreams on medication. How do they keep it all together and why do they try so hard to impress each other. And why does it always feel like I’m not one of them. Not even close. The more they want to make me like them the more I retreat. The more they reach for the outer signs of success the more I want to scream. There is a tangerine streak of cloud falling from the tail of a plane running jagged across the evening sky. It looks like lightening stood still and turning soft at its edges. The house creaks as evening falls in and I wonder why any one tells the story of anything. Why anyone who gives a damn about this life speaks what is untrue so often it becomes everyone else’s reality. I pour the wine and wonder why any one of us speaks at all.

Higher and Higher

Life is happening in a small body I once occupied, like a barren land frozen in opalescent frosted glass, far off beyond the streets I live on in this hard tangle of a neighborhood I didn’t grow up in. In my mind’s eye the visions of where I have been and where I think I ought to be going grow increasingly blurry, my head is heavy and my blindside dim. Some people never move and some never move on and at the moment I’m too tired to explore the difference. There are days you want to crawl inside yourself but you just aren’t there so it feels more lonely and less like home in the silence. These soft flickering evening moments filled with shadow and memory and time lost, dripping through the faucet that won’t turn off down the hall. The great writers write of great things as I lift a glass to the closing of another day, the beating of lonely hearts, the clasping of empty hands. These strange hollow nights when the moon does not glow, and no words are spoken because when you can’t feel yourself they don’t mean anything. And the dog in the distance barks at kids kicking a can down the road. And the whole world hangs its listless weight like an uneasy arm, slipped invisibly around your armchair shoulder.

Epicenter

They don’t see you even when you’re here, even though you observe each tiny detail with an obsession you are beginning to worry is problematic, or at the very least alienating. Your eyes, hungry, penetrating, absorbing everything and compulsively making note of it. The way the rain is wetter than usual on this early morning as you make the drive you’ve made for what feels like centuries, slushy drops landing in thunderous thuds upon the windshield. And are you living, and is this real, and is anybody out there, is anybody listening. Last night at the dinner table. Last night, the sink and the wine and the dishes. Last night’s pornographic scenes as you get yourself off just so you can sleep. The high school girl wearing red and black flannel pajama pants, smoking a cigarette while walking along the side of the road in rain boots and a winter coat, with the hood pulled over her head so tight the furry edges nearly obscure her tired, down-turned eyes. The corner convenience store with the lit up neon signs declaring it *OPEN* even though it appears too dimly lit to be any such thing. It’s only got one tiny window placed strangely high up and there are six thick iron bars over it. What miniature intruder are they trying to keep from breaking in to steal warm beer and chips? Sometimes your skin aches all over and you don’t know why. Sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed. There are moments when you consider making something grand of yourself but they are mostly overtaken by the frightened way you perform this life you wear which you know doesn’t fit. There are naked winter trees, bare and black as tar, feeling their wiry way into the heavy white late afternoon sky. There is a dirty kind of peace in the stillness of this neighborhood. Patches of gray grass and alleyways full of ghosts. Little girls and boys who once were running, shrieking. Timid kisses and scratched up knees. There is an arrogant kind of gladness in being left alone as you walk the streets. Red foil hearts placed neatly in the windows of row houses placed neatly on maps placed neatly on a planet spinning out of control, hurling out into space. Back at home I read Nabokov’s love letters but can’t feel the heat in a single word. I scroll through images of lacy lingerie, poetry that tries too hard to be deep, and quaint little sail boats in some town in Sweden. I do not fantasize. I do not dream. I do not move as the sun and the moon continue rising and falling in lock step, in turn.

People Like Us

There is a certain space which opens up in the middle of the day in the middle of my chest in the middle of my heart that swallows me whole. It doesn’t happen every day, but nearly every day. Around four in the afternoon, something inside me drops deep within and the outside world becomes less a burden than a blurred background noise as my mind grows soft like thin gray rain, the kind of beautiful darkening mist that cools and stimulates just enough to make you feel like a flower as she opens for the gentle spray. There is a small airport I escape to where I can lay in the fields of grass and weeds and watch the small planes and jets landing and taking off. One after another they glide on the same flight path in almost any kind of weather. I hate flying but I’m trying to get better about it. On this particular afternoon, I’m watching the planes with him as we pass the bottle back and forth between us and the wide expanse of the sky is burning into fiery pinks and reds as the evening ripens all around us. Looking up at the electrified atmospheric dome, I feel myself beginning to fall into a kind of fear that I recognize and dread. I tell him that even though I know I’ve got it better than most, there are times when I want to run. Times when I want to slip away and start over as someone else. He turns to look at me, his face neutral except for the glassy shimmer in his eyes caused either by excitement or alcohol or probably both, and tells me I should go for it. He smirks, the side of his sly mouth curled in mocking amusement. He knows I won’t run I’ll only dream of it. People like us aren’t made for greatness, only plagued with wild imaginations and words in the blood that require constant tending to. As exhausting as it is necessary, we create things in order to have something we can touch that doesn’t leave us cold. To us the world is a mess we try our best to navigate without dissolving into nervous break downs on the daily. Just for now, we hold hands in the grass, our bodies limp and our minds hazy. I take a sip as another plane comes in, red and white lights glowing fierce and steady straight down the runway as the wheels come down. I envy whoever’s inside. Not because they are obviously rich enough to own a private jet, likely lavish with leather seats and a glossy wooden minibar. But because, for this moment at least, it looks like they know exactly where they’re headed.