Reflections

Tenderness

Image result for the number 8 meaningAlthough it has been eight years since I started ruminationville, I have not maintained it actively since the corrupt, greedy, lying, self-serving, misogynistic, racist creep sleeping in the White House stole the election. In part my relative silence has been because of a growing belief that my solipsistic musings  would seem frivolous in light of the very grave dangers that now confront us. I think, also, that I have been unable to proceed here with business as usual because I have changed a good deal over these past several years.

As I have watched myself careen daily between rage, grief, sadness, and fear — and as I have looked for ways to right myself — I have come to realize that what interested me most when I started this blog no longer interests me much. More than wanting to become a better writer, I think I wanted to see if I could be disciplined enough to write regularly because I had been led to believe that I should not call myself a writer unless I wrote with determination and consistency. Now I see that I can call myself a writer even if I never again write another word. Who’s to tell me otherwise?

And where previously I came to think that being a writer was my life path (and it certainly had seemed so), several years ago I found I had been placed on another path when I wasn’t looking. It began in 2016 when I was searching for a way to augment my income because one cannot earn a livable wage solely as an adjunct professor. I also was looking for a way to exit teaching because, after more than 20 years in the profession, I had lost my passion for it. And I was so deeply tired, too.

Because I had some experience in the mental health field, I applied for a part-time job with a nearby agency. To my surprise, I was offered a full-time position working with young adults in a first-episode psychosis program. Unfortunately, after two years in the job I was let go because the program had been taken over by another, much larger organization that required someone in my position to have an undergraduate degree in psychology, social work, or a related field. Although at that point I had several advanced degrees, none satisfied the requirement, and I was left scrambling to find another job. Fortunately a supervisor went to bat for me, and I was hired to do similar work for the same organization, though in a different program with different degree requirements for staff.

I realized then that, if I wanted to leave teaching and if I wanted to be considered for better-paying, more professional positions in the future, I would need another graduate degree. Colleagues told me that a master’s in social work (MSW) would be the most versatile degree, so I applied to an MSW program and was accepted into it. Believe me when I say that I was not eager to return to school, yet here I am with more than a year of course work under my belt and with my first of two required internships well underway.

When I finish my degree, I think I would be happy enough to remain in Northern Virginia, where I live: I have friends, work, a spiritual community to which I have belonged for many years, and I believe I could get a better job with my new credentials. The only problem is that my daughter has returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was born and where we lived while she was growing up. She was pining for her home, and now I am pining for her.

As a holiday gift, she sent me a baby peperomia plant. The directions said I should give her a name. And although “Cheryl” popped immediately into my head, I found I could not remember it for the life of me. My daughter thought I might not be able to remember the name because it didn’t seem to really suit the plant, so I asked her to suggest another. Though fragile, “Sofia” appears to be thriving, and I have no trouble remembering what to call her. Daily I speak with her, touch her leaves gently, and open the blinds to let in the light. I feel great tenderness for her, in fact, and am becoming aware that she is as much a being as I am. When I let it, this realization breaks open my heart and allows a certain kind of love to enter. Perhaps it is this love that will help guide me in the decisions I soon will need to make.

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Today I Saw Leslie

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Throughout my life I have looked to other people for knowledge about who I am—but only of the coarser kind, such as a beloved to have said, “I am sorry I hurt you” so before I could begin to know I truly had been hurt or such as a brother to have said, “I am sorry I hardly think of you” at all before I could begin to know I was worthy of living in another’s thoughts or such as a mother to have said, “I am sorry I never loved you” enough before I could begin to know I had not been much loved or such as a father to have said, “I am sorry I left you again” and again before I could begin to know I had been cast off. Then today, while in my car and stopped at a red light, I saw close by a wild patch of feather grass shielding a lone starling in search of a bug and, almost without thinking, thought, “I am that.”

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Tea for two

Two Teacups and Saucers

For quite some time I have been relatively silent here. I could say much has changed, but you would not know it necessarily: As always, I seek solitude wherever I can; typically wear loose, dark clothing, with black as a preference; and remain folded in melancholy, though generally I can keep a sense of irony about things.

I also remain steadfast in the love and devotion I feel for my daughter, and I still believe I am called to serve the fragile. If years back you had asked me how I felt about my father, my mother, and my brother, I would have said that I loved them but that I might have died from their dark betrayals. I would say the same today but would add that I am myself besmudged.

Still I have more and more come to accept my nature and my past: I have made so many grave mistakes, particularly in relationships. Yet, I do not think I could have done otherwise, and perhaps I should not have done otherwise. More and more, too, I am roiled by rage as I watch men (and, sadly, women) who do not seem to possess even a trace of self-knowledge hurtle us toward the end of days. But I am less and less afraid of my anger. In fact, I can welcome him in now and can delight in pouring us a cup of tea. We have much to discuss, he and I.

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Less Is More

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Here and Now‘s Robin Young spoke last July with Andrew Sean Greer about his book Less, which just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Aired earlier this month, the NPR interview focuses on how and why Greer developed his “hapless” Arthur in the way he did. Dubbed by the author as a “gay Job,” the protagonist, we are told, is “a middling novelist who, faced with his lover’s impending marriage and his upcoming 50th birthday, embarks on a series of adventures that go comically awry.”

I’ve never been drawn to humorous novels (the mournful in me seems always in search of its reflection), so I confess that I likely won’t read the book. Still, I was very interested to learn about Greer’s prize-winning approach to writing it, and I listened attentively to what he told Young. One thing he said stayed with me:

“[Arthur Less] is nobody,” he tells the listeners. “That is the whole thing. He’s been attached to a genius, and he’s had some amount of success in his own career, but really by middle age if you haven’t had great success you’re kind of invisible in some way.”

Stuck on that last part, I have been reflecting on the nature of success and invisibility. As a child and then as a young adult, I learned from both the women and the men in my family (and from the larger culture in which I also was raised) that success, for a female, meant being skeletal and sunken-cheeked; hipless; melon-breasted; alabasterly flawless; deadly alluring to, though ultimately submissive in the presence of, men; and emotionally tucked in at all four corners.

Because I could never conform to this ideal feminine, I spent my younger years suffering profoundly over what I thought was a personal failure: It turned out I had a body and a spirit I could never tame, no matter what I tried; there also was in me an acute physical and psychic sensitivity that was ever pained by the inevitability of human ham-handedness.

I saw that loving kindness was at the same time required of a woman and dismissed as her central weakness. Her intelligence, too, was frequently trampled, mocked, disregarded, or even questioned: Years ago now, in response to something I told him during a winding conversation we were having about spirituality, a man I lived with for a time asked me if I was expressing an idea of my own or if I had read it somewhere. When I was accepted into a doctoral program at Berkeley, an honor for which I had toiled, and expressed to my mother that I was worried about whether I would successfully complete it because I wasn’t sure I could afford to pay for tuition, rent, and food (among other expenses), she said, “Don’t worry about finishing. It’s enough that you got in.”

It’s little wonder, then, that I have faltered at every step — doubting my strength, my intelligence, my own kind of beauty. Unsurprisingly, I have never earned much money, despite money being the signatory of success, and I have struggled mightily with poverty and with the looming spectre of homelessness. Partly this was to do with being a woman and a single mother in a society that values neither. Partly it was to do with the being I was when I came whole into the world.

Now, at 66, I am beyond middle age and have few, if any, external trappings that would signal to Greer or to those like him that I am a success. Although I have taught college for more than 20 years and have been devout in my commitment to it, I have always earned what has amounted to slightly more than minimum wage. I have never sought tenure; nor have I looked to become valued in academic circles for my publications or for my teaching prowess. And, despite having written nearly all my life, at middle age I had not achieved “great success” as a creative writer either. In fact, ruminationville, now a little more than six years old, has managed to attract just 315 followers. To those who have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, this is a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.

Yet, I am grateful for each person who makes a decision to read what I write here. Some tell me my work has been affecting. I value, too, every student I have taught, and I know I have made a difference in some of their lives.

To a scattering of people, then, I do not think I have been invisible. Or without success.

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Remorse

I have been rereading In Search of the Miraculous, PD Ouspensky’s seminal work on the teachings of GI Gurdjieff, and today I found myself especially drawn to a section in the book where he recounts Gurdjieff’s views about conscience:

Conscience is a state in which a man feels all at once everything that he in general feels, or can feel. And as everyone has within him thousands of contradictory feelings which vary from a deeply hidden realization of his own nothingness and fears of all kinds to the most stupid kind of self-conceit, self-confidence, self-satisfaction, and self-praise, to feel all this together would not only be painful but literally unbearable.

If a man whose entire inner world is composed of contradictions were suddenly to feel all these contradictions simultaneously within himself, if he were to feel all at once that he loves everything he hates and hates everything he loves; that he lies when he tells the truth and that he tells the truth when he lies; and if he could feel the shame and horror of it all, this would be the state which is called ‘conscience.’

While reading this passage, I remembered what I had heard 30 years earlier from someone in the Work (as it is called), who told a group of us drawn to Mr. Gurdjieff’s ideas that we should never believe any of them unless we had verified their truthfulness through our own experiences.

Last Sunday, I was given the opportunity to feel the “shame and horror” of what I am certain was an experience of true conscience, when I had a front-row seat to the theater of my many inner contradictions. I was out to dinner with a kind, solicitous man I had dated a few times, and I very much wanted there to be the possibility of an enduring companionship. We had a good deal in common, I told myself — lonely childhoods that instilled in each of us an abiding need for solitude and self-sufficiency; a deep love of animals, especially dogs; a naive insistence that, above all, people should be honest; and a genuine tenderheartedness towards those brethren among us who are suffering.

As we ate our paella marinara and drank our Blue Moon beer, I listened attentively to him describe a movie he had seen, and gradually I found myself feigning interest in what he had to say. More and more anxious to leave, I was soon taken over by a dreadful irritation in search of outlet. Unable to escape from the discomfort, I looked inward, with not a little pain, as someone deeply cruel replaced the more tenderhearted one in me and began to launch a (mercifully) silent attack on his clothes, his cologne, his voice, his mannerisms, and on.

Once home, and then throughout the week, I experienced the kind of remorse that I am convinced can come only from those moments in which we are made to stare unflinchingly at the machinations of our disunited selves. The hope is that someone more whole will one day emerge from this container of broken bone and scarlet blood I call “I.”

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Six years

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It has been more than six years since I published my first piece on this site, and for five of those years I was diligent about marking the anniversary of each passing year with a post that would somehow measure the progress I thought I might have made during the previous twelve months.

This past year, my sixth as queen of an undistinguished, microminiature cyber realm, I found myself changing in ways I could hardly bear to notice, much less measure, and discovered I had been shaken loose from a habit of writing often and from a feeling that what I had to say would matter to those who visited here. I have come to see that, these days, writing mostly means my having to unearth a personal history that pains me profoundly (and from which I have long fled). Much of my previous confidence has hightailed it, too.

It all began last January, when I saw the country I didn’t even know I loved begin to lose its wheels, and I watched with horror while a man with a soul as dark as death made off with the presidency of the United States.

It enrages me just to see his picture or to hear his voice, which means I have been in a near-constant rage for more than a year because there is no escaping him. And, while it is true that I am angry about what he and his sycophants are doing to the republic and that my feelings appear to be those of a patriot, I have come to see that the fury has more to do with my own afflicted history than it does with the squatter in the White House. Watching him gaslight his way through the first year of a presidency without even a hint of remorse has poured a terrible light on the traumas of my earlier life, when a family of miscreants abused and confused me almost beyond repair.

The #MeToo movement also has forced me to reckon with a history of two failed marriages as well as to reflect soberly on my countless other relationships (or make-believe relationships) in which I sought, and found, the same confusing abuse I experienced as a child. And it has afforded me a certain amount of emotional cover so that I could endure reliving the sexual harassment and molestation I experienced at the hands of employers, doctors, and others I thought I was obliged to trust.

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Boys to men

As much-admired men in the public sphere fall, I am deeply saddened by their tumble-down because some, like Louis CK and Kevin Spacey, are genius. And we are going to need a boatload of genius to counterbalance the idiocy we now see in Washington, DC.

I am wildly grateful, though, that at last there has come a moment of public reckoning for men who would use their prestige and power to assault women with impunity. And I am very much for town-square pillorying if this serves as a warning to those who even contemplate the kind of beastly violations that lately have come to light.

Yet, I don’t think there is a woman living, or dead, who has not experienced, or witnessed, our culturally nourished abuse and diminution of women. Even the best of boys learn when they are toddling that they can run roughshod over girls. Daddy and mommy might even think it cute — the emerging machismo of their male offspring. And what high school locker room has not enwalled its share of towel-snapping teens snickering about the school “slut” who gave it up the night before?

Why, just the other day, while waiting at a crosswalk, I was standing behind a group of adolescent boys who were laughing about a tweet one had seen, which posed these questions: “Why do girls wear whore costumes for Halloween? Aren’t they supposed to dress up as something they are not?”

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