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.

 

Don’t Even Say It

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.

On the Edge of Nothing Certain

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.

Film

There is a bird on a wire across the street, a tiny ink blot with fluttering wings and a triangular tail that lifts up and down every once in a while. It’s a fidgety thing, poking itself under its black feathers with that pointy beak. High above, the gray sky is a peaceful dome of smooth dim shade. Lighting a cigarette, I let the faded light of evening wash across my pale disinterested face. I’m so tired I can taste the ache in the dryness of the smoke curled against the back of my throat, stale, burned, a hotness which ignites my chest, my exhausted bones sheltered in place. In my mind I crawl like a cat, slink up the walls of the cage which is home and look down at myself as I suck a deep drag. Out the window images move in front of my yellow eyes, lush green lawns and the silly people tending to them, driveways of cars they do not drive. A young mother in pajamas in the middle of the afternoon pushes a stroller around the block for the forty seventh time but who’s counting. We are in motion, we are detached. Bedroom slippers. Laptops. Hair ties. I remember the cold beer you drank as we sat at the outside bar and watched the city lights electrify the night. How the water droplets formed on the outside of the glass and slid underneath your thick fingers. Your cool hands on my bare skin in the heat of summer. Bodies melting into each other all around us, wine and whiskey and lipstick and the sounds of some indie rock band at the back of the place near the bathrooms, wooden walls and rum stained floors. The vintage vending machine which dispensed soft packs of cigarettes for twelve dollars each, you had to pull the long pole handle toward you to get the pack to slip out of the silver slot. I am thirteen, I am twenty two, I am thirty five. The women’s room was covered in raunchy articles and racy old fashioned photos, one featured a man from what had to be the 1930’s in a three piece tweed suit and top hat, blindfolded, two scantily clad young women leading him by each of his outstretched hands. Underneath the title read: Against His Will. Summer smolders in the pit of my stomach, the smell of a humid bar and a honeysuckled breeze. It is any given day and night of a season which has bled into all the others, in a time and place I cannot remember and hope I never forget. We ignore the signs and hope for the best. I pour the first drink of the night as your body encircles me from behind. Love is beautiful, numb, and blind. The little bird on the wire sings a crinkly twilight song, cocks his hollow quarter-sized head and flies off toward someplace, suddenly, without hesitation. Just like that, leaving this one far behind.

But I Couldn’t See Her Face

As I walk through the center of town sipping my coffee, I can see the screaming blue sky reflected upon the tall glass buildings as the furious wind pushes ominous dark clouds across the wide open expanse. The days move quickly and yet they drag on like a conversation you’re dying to get out of but can’t. To be locked down is to be made very present, very apparent to yourself. There is no where to go and no where to hide from yourself and this in itself is exasperating. Scrolling through Twitter I see it’s the same cesspool it always is, only now made much worse because people are dying by the thousands every day and the more everyone talks about it the more despondent we all become. Yesterday I colored a rainbow on a piece of cardboard and hung it in the window. It’s supposed to bring joy, hope, and comfort to those passing by. We do little things like this in the face of big impossible terrible things because we feel small, we are aware now how small we actually are. Everything turns in on itself and points back to the place inside that hurts the most. I try to get out of my own head, that is one of the hardest things to do these days. I read novels to pass the time. There’s a girl on Instagram who posts pictures of herself everyday looking made up and sexy and I wonder where in the hell she gets the energy. I cycle through a daily uniform of hoodies and stretch pants and couldn’t be happier about it. I don’t remember what a bra even is or why I would ever wear one ever again. I can’t bear to think about ever going back to the office. Big corporations seem like giant monsters looming out there in the cold hard distance waiting to swallow us up again and remind us we are nothing, headed nowhere. Life feels suspended in a way I have never experienced before. I go to write but a fog rolls in over my brain and thick clouds of listlessness bloom through my chest and limbs. Black coffee. Chocolate. The Guardian. Slate. Vox. CNN. Washington Post. The Skimm. Late night comedians. Andrew Cuomo. Numbers. Faces. Ventilators. Curves. I have finished My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, about a fifteen year old girl who gets into a sexual relationship with her forty two year old English teacher at boarding school. Devastating, harrowing, brilliant, fascinating, painful. haunting, intimate, impossible to put down. It is fantastically well written, her debut novel. Took her eighteen years to write the thing and it is absolutely stunning. The story crawls into your veins and pulses through you days after you’ve finished reading it, it has a life of its own. Next up I will be reading Hiding In Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America by Sarah Kendzior, who spent her career studying the mechanics of the way authoritarian governments take control of democratic countries. I’ve only read the intro, but it all makes perfect sense. The fringes get pulled to the center, anything and everything is up for grabs. The law gets re-written to serve the desires of the wicked and corrupt. I don’t know how we get out of this. I don’t see it being pretty or easy or soon. For now, we go to the grocery store and scan the empty aisles, it’s like there’s a blizzard coming every week and the panic looks like rows and rows of white glossy shelves with nothing on them but orange price stickers announcing the cost of things you cannot buy. In the self check out lane there are trash magazines and gum and Lysol wipes on the counter. High above in the rafters there is a voice on loop over the radio waves: Help us keep our customers and essential workers safe, maintain at least a six foot distance between yourself and others at all times. The feminine voice is calm and detached. A young cashier watches me load my credit card into the machine, her eyes look tired, like they are asking me a question none of us can answer about hope and fear, almost pleading, as they smile at me from above her mask.

Fire Sign

The night is cut through with sharp bolts of jagged lightning in between thunder which slams itself so hard against the house the walls all around us rattle and tremble. Shaking me out of my dead slumber, my eyes dart across the room checking that the windows are closed to keep the driving rain from spilling in all over the hardwood floors. They are not closed, in fact, nor are the blinds which explains why the bedroom is cool with midnight air and shocked alive by the electric springtime storm. Four a.m. and now suddenly wide awake, I decide it’s as good a time as any to slide out of bed, make coffee and work on some writing as the rain streaks down in heavy sheets along the window pane in my writing room. Ever since I was a little kid I have romanticized the rain. Not people in the rain, not the rain where lovers kiss as they are drenched to their core, no. Just the rain all by itself, pouring out over lush forests, falling and rushing in streams through cobblestone city streets. Misting through a gray rolling morning fog. There is a quiet inside the rain, an honesty, a melancholy I crave inexplicably. My grandmother used to tell me that it is because I am a fire sign, Sagittarius. All the fire in my blood needs the rain, the dark, the coolness, on the outside to balance me out. Impossible to say if that is true or not, of course, but it makes for a beautifully poetic interpretation, I think, so I believe it to be the reason. As the coffee brews and morning light turns to powder blue over the rolling hills of newly budding trees, the rain all but moves off and fades away. Another day, same as the rest, dawns again and again and again in a rhythm I am much more aware of now. The days and nights hand themselves over to us on repeat, repeat, repeat. Like a beckoning. Like a bludgeoning. Skimming my journal, I see I have scribbled nothing much worth anything, so I stand and pour another cup, sipping in silence as I look out at the waking neighborhood. The thick branches of an old oak tree across the block reach boldly in every direction, wild and untamed, just as they did yesterday, and every day before. Everything is still as the little lights click on, one by one by one. High above the street, I sit waiting, watching, breathing. Pen to paper. Hour to hour. Fingers to keys. Mostly, though, somewhere deep inside my bones, I’m restless. A static voice skips like a record, I miss the storm.