Give yourselves to what you cannot hold

The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.

-Ranier Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus 1,4

More beautiful and thought-provoking words from the lovely blog, A Year with Rilke.  Isn’t Rilke, in his characteristically simple but powerful imagery, talking about growing up, letting go, trusting – all of my favorite themes?  Isn’t this, in essence, what I was looking for when I jumped off a high platform into thin air?

I love Rilke’s assertion that the “trees” from childhood, those epitomes of rooted, solid stability, are too heavy to carry into adulthood.  In midlife I have begun to realize that the tools I used to understand and navigate my earlier life simply did not work anymore.  Furthermore, I’ve started to understand that the resolute permanence on which my worldview was built is evanescent anyway.  The trees are too heavy now.  Maybe they were never real, though that I don’t dwell there.  That they are not now is what matters.

And so into midlife I walk, trying, every single day, to let go of those illusions of certainty.  To release my hold on the tree branches that so effectively sheltered me for many years.  What is left is the open air, something ineffable and beyond logic: the deep trust that something will catch me, keep me from harm.  Trying to have faith in what I cannot hold.  In a contradictory way the more effort I exert here the more this elusive faith evades me.  So, yet another truth of right now: it is in loosening my grip that safety lives.

Once again I will remember that life itself lives in the open air, in the surprising buoyancy of the trapeze, in the untrammelled, unasked-for joy in my children’s smiles, in the startling incadescence of a blaze of light in the cloudy sky.  Life is in the design so vast it cannot be seen up close.  Life is in the space that dwells beyond the power of my rational mind; it cannot be categorized and beaten into submission by the intellect. It is as insubstantial and essential as air.

I will remember that I must give myself over to that which I can neither hold nor understand.

The pain of the world threads itself through me

I read Jo’s gorgeous post, Everything Under the Gaping-Mouth Moon with a wince of recognition.  She writes – beautifully, as ever – about the dissonance she experiences between her own “singalong life” and the horrors that she knows are out there in the world.  “While children starve in North Korea, I barter with mine about dessert,” she writes, and I both smile and grimace, knowing the squeaking, nails-on-chalkboard feeling that putting two realities like that next to each other can generate.

Jo goes on to talk about how gratitude can be an antidote to the world’s suffering, about realizing that embracing joy, even in the full knowledge that out there is an ocean of sorrow, is not a bad thing.  In fact, it could be a good and generative and healing thing.  I love her points and highly recommend her post – Jo’s blog in general, actually.

As her writing often does, Jo’s words made me pensive.  I went off on a slightly different direction, though.  I can’t stop thinking about the ways in which my piercing awareness of the pain in the world – writ large and writ small – threads itself through my everyday life.  I regularly find myself keening – literally, wailing, internally if not externally – over the hurt in the world.  One day, driving through Harvard Square, stopped at a red light, Whit pointed to the man with the tattered cardboard sign begging from the stopped cars and asked, “Where’s his mummy?”  That made me cry so hard I had to pull over.  I can’t quite elucidate yet how devastated I am by homelessness; it’s a combination of guilt at my own comfort and despair about a society that abandons those who need it most.  I don’t read the paper anymore – some of that is from sheer laziness, sure, but it’s also because I simply can’t take the litany of news about deaths, despotic rulers, and economies in free fall.

This functions in a variety of ways.  Because of my porous nature, I’m easily hurt and saddened by what I witness, in my small world and in the larger one.  It also makes me, sometimes, awfully maudlin, even morbid.  This past weekend, sitting at a kitchen table at the Lost Island in New Hampshire with two of my very dearest friends, I descended into conversation about how the axe is hanging over our heads and it’s just a question of when.  Someone is going to get sick.  Someone is going to die.  Who will it be?  I’ve observed before that I have far more funerals ahead of me than behind me.  I’ve also been through enough severe illnesses, of parents and close friends, to know what that does to you.  And I ought to be more grateful, every single day, for the pulse of life that beats through me and my healthy friends and family.

And somehow I can’t.  I seesaw wildly between gratitude so intense it brings me to my knees, eyes full of tears, and crushing guilt at my own nonchalance about my good fortune.  I can’t believe I’m not more thankful, not more aware of the extraordinary good fortune of every single day that I – and, more importantly, so do my best friends and my family – get to be alive and healthy.  My existence is an odd combination of twinned grief and gratitude and overwhelming foreboding of bad things to come.  I know there is bad news on the horizon – there must be.  I also know that I ought to ignore it, and dance in the sunlight while it’s here.  And sometimes, truly, I can.  But not always, and in those moments I’m completely paralyzed by a simultaneous fear of those clouds and horror that I’m not appreciating the now better.

As one of my favorite, truly favorite bloggers, Kate at sweet/salty, put it: “Life is pain punctuated by joy.”  I hate being negative, I fight the creep of cynicism, and daily I wish I had more wonder in my life.  Still, I think she might be right.  There is so much damn rain in this world.  And, as I’ve realized, the more people you love, and the more deeply you feel, the more rain you get.  There’s no question about that equation.  Still, I’d never do it differently.  I wouldn’t trade my life for one with shallower feelings or one protected from the threat that I know clouds every moment.  Like my dear, beloved Jo, I sometimes want to pound my fists on the steering wheel, I squeeze my eyes closed to hold back the torrent of tears, and I rail against my own ingratitude.  Still, I know: this is life.  Radiance and shadow.  Turning, turning.

Did the shadow of what was coming cast its darkness over the light of a moment?

Reading A Double Life reminded me vividly the weeks and months after Grace’s birth, which were the darkest of my life.  As she recounts it in her memoir, Lisa Catherine Harper’s depression seems considered, thoughtful.  I plunged back into my own, remembering how inelegant my complete and utter collapse was, how inchoate the roaring of desperation in my ears.  I had no idea what was happening to me, but I knew firmly that I’d made the biggest and most permanent mistake of my life.

For years I’ve wondered if I could have somehow known what was coming.  As I’ve mentioned, I think the seeds of my depression were sown in my surprise pregnancy, and in how out of control I felt of the endeavor from the absolute beginning (fair question: is there ever a way to feel in control of such a fundamentally uncontrollable enterprise?).  There are two places I go to look for clues, wondering if with the wisdom of perspective I can see the shadow of what was coming casting its darkness over the light of a moment?

One is in my photographs.  It’s no secret that I take pictures of everything.  These photos do not become a silent, untouched mausoleum on my hard drive.  No, they are a living, breathing record: I return to the photos over and over, revisiting experiences, remembering moments.  I’ve done that a lot with the pictures of the days surrounding Grace’s arrival.  I can see a certain tentativeness in myself, but other than that I don’t think I see any concrete evidence of what hovered ahead of me.  I’ve looked at the pictures of her first weeks on earth an awful lot too, and those make me mostly sad.  I see a shell-shocked woman, overcome with a numbness so complete I don’t remember very much from that time.  I realize how that that numbness was sheer survival instinct – I was so deeply wounded that I think experiencing the raw feelings all at once would have swamped me utterly.  The picture above, moments after I delivered Grace with my own two hands, is the last one where I think I look like myself until many months later.

The other place I can pick up crumbs that show me the path I was on at a given time is my quote book.  In the specific quotes that moved me enough to hand-write them into my books I can decode something of where I was emotionally at a specific time.  In these books I see more clues than I do in the photographs, a deeper, subconscious anticipation of what lay ahead.  One week to the day before Grace’s birth I entered the James Baldwin quote that has come to be so incredibly important to me: “Trust life and it will teach you, in joy and sorrow, all you need to know.”

Two days before her birth, I added these lines from William James: “I am done with great things and great plans, great institutions and great successes.  I am for those tiny, invisible, loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets…”  It’s as though I knew I was moving to a world whose focus was small acts, deep individual love, and a power beyond sight.

And then, three days after Grace was born, the day after we brought her home from the hospital (incidentally, those photographs terrify me – my eyes are both blank and blazing, full of what I recognize now as abject terror), I wrote this: “One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life … and that word is love.” (Sophocles).

It took me many, many long months to learn what I can see now so brightly in these specific quotations and in their chronology.  I’m grateful that I now understand how the path unfolded, though I remain bruised by the experience of walking it.  In some strange way being able to revisit the woman I was then, through words and photographs, allows me to extend compassion to her, to attempt to heal in some out-of-time way the wounds I still carry from those days.

Do you have places – written, photographic, filmed, or otherwise – that you can return to, looking for a record of who you were at a specific moment in your life?  Places where you can see threads of your life glinting through, even when you weren’t aware of them at the time?

There are many ways to hide from your life

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about achievement, and the Race to Nowhere, and the ways we hide from our lives.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how complicated it gets when the ways you hide from your life are applauded by the world.  For me this has mostly been true: whether it’s running or studying with a fierce concentration or following the tide of popular sentiment down a path that might have been the wrong one.

This is a kind of hiding in plain sight, right?  None of your behaviors speak of anything being wrong.  In fact, they are celebrated.  For me, the pinnacle of this was at Exeter.  I’ve been very frank that my two years at Exeter were difficult for me.  I think late adolescence is an emotional and awkward time for most people, and some extenuating circumstances made mine especially challenging.  My parents were across an ocean (and in this pre-cell day, we spoke once a week on the payphone in the basement of my dorm).  My heart was broken at the very beginning of senior year when the first relationship of my life exploded in front of me (and in a hurtful, and public, way, no less).

What did I do?  I ran and I studied.  That is it.  I ran for an hour every single day, mostly in the woods out behind the gymnasium (across the bridge that appears in A Separate Peace), but when it was really freezing I’d run laps around the track suspended above the cage.    My senior year GPA was 10.8 (out of Exeter’s characteristically-unusual GPA scale of 11).  I read and I wrote and I studied and I went to bed every single night well before 10.  I didn’t have many close friends.  I didn’t have another boyfriend.  I didn’t ever break any rules, didn’t experiment with drinking or smoking, as so many boarding school denizens do.

It was a fraught time.  I was a liminal creature (Peggy Orenstein ascended even further in my pantheon of favorites when she used this, one of my favorite words, in Cinderella Ate My Daughter).  I was moving from girlhood to adulthood, and I was doing it mostly all by myself.  In this dark time, one I remember as still and ever-moving at the same time, I had one firm guide: James Valhouli, my English teacher, the first person to believe I had something of value to say.

But all of my coping mechanisms, things that I understand now were ways of avoiding actually engaging with my life, looked like success from the outside.  I was profoundly unhappy, but I don’t think anyone who didn’t know me well could tell.  I don’t know what the conclusion of this is, necessarily, but I do know that it points to a truth I’ve often referred to here: outsides and insides are not always congruent, and we ought to be slower to judge others based on the external indicators they display.  It also reminds me that there are many, many ways to hide from our lives, to numb ourselves to the things that hurt, and we would be well-served to approach all others with compassion.  They, too, are likely grappling with demons, even if we cannot see the struggle.

A Double Life

I suspected I was going to enjoy A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood by Lisa Catherine Harper.  I didn’t, however, imagine that I’d devour it almost in one sitting.  I adored Harper’s book: it is full of careful, scientific details that were new to me, it is written in eloquent, beautiful prose, and more than once it made me gasp with identification.  The terrain of Harper’s memoir – pregnancy, birth, the first months of motherhood – is familiar, but the honest and funny voice in which she tells it, and the nuanced observations with which it is filled, are unique.

The first half of A Double Life is concerned with conception and pregnancy.  Ella, Harper’s daughter, is conceived on 9/11, and Harper describes how that fall there “seemed to be darkness everywhere.” There are fascinating details about the development of a baby from zygote to blastoscyst to fetus, the physiology of pregnancy, and about Harper’s own family history.

The book began to really gather power for me when Harper talks about the first time she felt her baby move inside her.  She hints at what is to come when she says,

But something infinitely more primal and more immediate had happened on the couch, and its aftermath was not unlike the seconds after a small earthquake, when everything you know about the world is cast into doubt, when your own terra firma crumbles beneath you and you are certain only of uncertainty.

A Double Life reaches the crescendo of its impact as it addresses the profound, irrevocable change that motherhood represents.  As Harper describes it – and I agree with this characterization – it is a complete and utter dissolution and then rebuilding of identity.  This begins with a harrowing description of labor, as close to the real experience as I’ve ever read.  I felt like I was back in the room where I had my daughter, during my third hour of transition, begging my midwife to put a bullet in my head and just cut my daughter out (that really happened), when I read this:

In the middle of that pain, at pain’s deep center, it was dark.  In that dark there were no others and there was no language.  It was silent and it was deafening, it was still and it was cyclonic.

Still and deafening, still and cyclonic: I’ve never read labor more viscerally evoked.  At the end of her long and arduous labor, Harper delivers her daughter, Ella.  When they return home she and Ella sink into that otherworld known as the fourth trimester, where the standard demarcations of day and night crumble and life as it has been known fades away entirely.  Harper loves these days, even while acknowledging their stultifying exhaustion.  “The intense passions that I had sought most of my young life seemed shallow in comparison to the deep tides of contentment that pulled at me now,” she writes, and for a period of time she and Ella exist in a world where all they need is each other.  It is a calm and joyful time, a “steady stream of wonder.”

After about nine months, however, Harper’s sense of herself as a mother in the world begins to feel more complicated. At one point, noticing that Ella’s eyes follow her around the room, she “began to understand ‘mother,’ its permanence fixed to me like a shadow” and we intuit that Harper is growing aware of the permanence and immutability of the role.

In the last few chapters of A Double Life Harper grapples with her most complex and ambivalent feelings about motherhood and in so doing begins to face essential questions of personhood.  The nearness – twinned-ness, in fact – of life and death, a theme that surfaces during her pregnancy, recurs in these final chapters.  For Harper, giving birth – giving life – occasioned a reckoning with death.  This awareness also shapes her experience of her young daughter’s life: “Motherhood made me familiar with this mortal creep of time.”  This is of course intensely familiar to me.  In fact it made me consider that my own preoccupation with being present and aware and my profound sadness about time’s passage likely have their roots in my being a mother.  I don’t think these are new wounds for me, but they are certainly rawer now that I watch my own children grow.

It was a sort of miracle to be able to hold these two moments – of life, of death – in mind at once; to be acutely conscious of both the present and of the presence and nearness of loss; to hold in my arms the evidence of life and death, for that is what my daughter was: an inspired, poetic fact.  She gave me an accidental genius, and if it filled me with night terrors, it also filled me with song.

At the end of A Double Life, Harper seems to move into a period of heightened sensitivity, into a porousness that I recognize intimately.  She describes a moment in church as “A pause in my life and something strange possessed me … Something had visited me.  It came, imparted, and was gone. .. I was not so changed so much as infused.”  This reminded me of a moment in my early 20s in the crypt at Assissi, a memory I return to again and again because it was a harbinger of what was to come later in my life.  I’ve had other moments – few, but indelible – like this in my life, too. They remind of the presence of something greater, a design vaster than I can understand, and, as Harper says, infuse me with the current of humanity itself.

In her memoir’s second to last chapter, Harper confronts the twisted world of the mommy wars, and suggests that the essential problem is not, essentially, whether a woman works outside of the home but the fact that the world at large has utterly devalued the work of motherhood and the experience of life inside the home.  She realizes that conversation at her baby group sometimes feels like “a storm of all that nothing,” but simultaneously finds herself deeply interested in the details of domestic life.  Ultimately Harper comes to a conclusion that I identify with strongly:

I felt I belonged in neither world: much of my energy was invested in raising Ella so I couldn’t fully claim my professional identity, but neither could I identify with what seemed to me to be the petty concerns of motherhood.  I loved my daughter and I loved my home.  I did not love the stay-at-home culture of mothering.

I guess this shouldn’t surprise me, given that Lisa and I connected when she read my essay in the Princeton Alumni Weekly called “A Foot in Two Worlds.”  Harper vows to “move between my worlds of teaching, writing, and mothering, and I tried hard to see how each inflected the other,” which reminded of Anne Tyler’s comment that “since I’ve had children I’ve grown richer and deeper.  They may have slowed down my writing for a while, but when I did write, I had more of a self to speak from.”  Perhaps instead of interpreting my life as fractured, and bemoaning the losses in that, I ought to celebrate the ways in which I am a kaleidoscope (one of those recurring tropes in my writing).  Each of the various slices of who I am, of which I inhabit in every single day, can, and should, inform – indeed, enrich – the other.

A Double Life doesn’t reach a single firm conclusion on the work/home tension.  Instead, Harper proposes that mothers ought to feel more united than opposed, and that we should drop the false bifurcation of “working” and “staying at home” identities.  Harper asserts that “what bound us together was the fact that we found our children interesting, that we were inspired by them, that we had allowed our lives to be changed by them.”  I may have initially fought this change with everything I had, but I’ve certainly allowed it now.  The new reality of who I am as a mother – not that new anymore, in fact – floods every cell of my being on a regular basis, bathing me in wonder and gratitude as much as in impatience and sharp sadness at the speed with which it all passes.

The very last scene of A Double Life takes place, tellingly, as Harper sits working at her desk.  Her daughter crawls up to her and commands her attention; there, sitting at her desk, her baby at her feet, we see the disparate strands of identification and person come together in a single compelling image.  Harper reminds us of where she begins her memoir, with researched, scientific awe at conception and pregnancy, and then touches on the various highs and lows we have experienced with her over 232 pages.  And, with the moving honesty and elegant prose that fills A Double Life, Harper concludes:

Out of nothing she had become something, and I had become something more.  If the crushing love that I felt for her made me newly and forever fearful of mortality, and if, on some days, it made me tired and irritable and beside myself with despair and fury, there was something else, too, something with wings rising now like hope, or gratitude, or grace.