The Price of Tenderness II
Let me be the wave. And if I cannot be the wave, let me be the rupture at the bottom. Let me be that terrible first rift in the dark.
— Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
I've been dwelling recently on [what feels to be] both the essence and futility of words in times like these. I'm reaching that season where I want to let my voicemail box fill up until it rejects calls automatically. When I go through these periods of courting silence, I can become so involved* with making a poem or writing an essay that I'm not constantly thinking or worried about how that desire for inner peace or discovery is affecting others**. I'm no longer afraid of revealing myself to myself [shout out to a decade of BCT and working the 4th step ]. That's the goal of recovery —to dig in deep enough to be transformed while writing the poem. Even when sadness feels Sisyphean, it doesn't bother me. And I don't think I'm treating the mountain like a hedonistic treadmill - it's just that the boulder is easier to push when it's your sadness. To bastardize Camus: there is always a point where we are relieved of our burden[s] - and perhaps - we can rise above our fates knowing that the struggle toward such tremendous heights is enough to fill our hearts. It's why trusting a transformation doesn't require much faith the second time. You don't just have the evidence; you are the evidence. Everything before that is just living in the ashes. When I first got clean, I believed recovery was possible [for others], but I didn't think it was possible for me until my desire to use was lifted. Similarly, I hated another cliche in the rooms until I experienced it: "Don't leave until the miracle happens." and goddamnit, they were right! Rilke called this "living our way into the answers" - and it is, hands down, the best thing about getting older.
[ * obsessed, **my therapist calls this a limitation and told me to stop calling it a personal failing because every introspective-introvert struggles with this. ]
I spent most of my twenties trying to fight my sorrow and isolate myself from my suffering, which is also a way of isolating myself from others. Taking off our armor is easy. Allowing someone past the rope while it's off, well, that's something else. But, like Barbara Brown Taylor, deep down, I still believe all of us want to wake to the holy communion of the human condition, which takes place on more altars than anyone can count. But Dostoevsky knew that [active love of paying attention] doesn't just take practice, but labor and fortitude, and for some people [it is] a complete science.
Ellen Bass has this marvelous poem titled "The Long Recovery," where she asks: How can I hurl myself deeper into this life? Which continues to be a, if not the central, question for me. How do we bear it [the weight of the world and all our losses and trauma] and still live fully and without diminished wonder and awe? It's another practice [of course]. First comes the prayer, "I want to experience this life differently." And then comes the decision, followed by the method. I always return to Lucille Clifton's: "I choose joy because I am capable of it [..]" and not just with joy, but tenderness, compassion, and gentleness - or any emotion that's difficult to reach. Contempt, violence, entitlement, and apathy aren't on the bottom shelf like we (like to) imagine. It doesn't take any work to get there. They're accessible by design, perhaps even the display cases at the end of every aisle. Sometimes I must stop and ask myself, "What am I reaching for?" because I can still blur the line between discernment and judgment. It's almost like I need a "screen time report" for what emotions I've been holding in my body at the end of the day. What have I been devoting energy to if my stomach is in knots and my shoulders ache? If arthritis in my hands makes me wince when I brush my teeth, is it my autoimmune disorder acting up, or have I been holding onto a painful memory? But love and [shared] joy - those emotions are expansive. They feel like standing in a field at dusk. Being seen, witnessed, and cared for are balms for the soul and the body. We all need it. And the more we give in return, the bigger our cup gets. That's why people who've lost the most (can) generally come closer to another's sorrow. It's not just about empathy or sympathy but our ability to hold and approach the intolerable. The unendurable happens. People we love and we can't live without are going to die. We're going to die. One day we're going to have to leave everyone and everything behind. It's unendurable and inevitable. All art holds that knowledge. But it's a singularity, like trying to see the other side of a black hole, so we must blindly experience it before learning how to [correctly] approach it.
Practicing joy is often a matter of embracing and celebrating our entanglements - even though attachments can be painful. Meaning [to me] often condenses to giving and receiving care and attention. I can often feel profound joy in solitude. The more I think, learn, practice, study, et cetera, the more I know my solitude is never complete. Because even if I'm alone, I'm bringing everyone I love into my body and being. And that's a lot of people. There's always a gathering inside of us. Simone de Beauvoir wrote: "I'm not thinking about the day when I'll see you again, […] I don't need to see you — I'm not separated from you; I'm still in the same world as you. […] I love you. You haven't left me," And we have to reacquaint ourselves with that gathering —which sometimes I think can be very difficult to do if you're busy or amid other kinds of gatherings. I have a meaningful life when I collaborate with my select few. But I can't always operate in that small circle, so I must work toward collaborative care, recovery, and support, which is always an act of personal and political revolution. And it might just be that meaning is how we care for each other. Cooking for someone is an instance of belonging. And even if my gluten-free brownies are terrible, it doesn't matter because we can make another trip to the grocery store together.
I can do your dishes while you tell me the untold story you've been holding inside yourself. If we allow it, it can feel like the beginning of belonging to one another, and that feeling will incite more understanding and care, by which we will belong to one another more. And I want to articulate, but more importantly, notice how we do this daily. I want to honor it so much that it's blinding, like how I sneeze three times when I walk outside in the bright sunlight. Because the idea of you and me changes when we laugh, cry, and dance together. Every gardener will tell you that a regular practice of the garden is to share. You've got extra zucchini; you share them. You share your tomatoes because three people at the office understand that love language. Every act of care troubles the boundary between you and me. Inciting joy and practicing tenderness are direct results of grief, but more specifically, they result from the heartache we choose to carry together. And there might be a lot of joy there. Our most profound tendency is that if someone needs something, we give it. It's the practice of witnessing in the midst of what is always all so difficult. The trick is turning it into an active alchemy. It is what I hope to make my complete science.
As Mary Jo Bang wrote: "This is the bread: body, soul, exquisite tenderness. We are all we have."