Thursday, March 29, 2012

Learned Love

In the pursuit of better learning myself, and attempting to nail down, in some concrete way (if that's even possible), a greater understanding of what external forces define my happiness, I've lately found myself contemplating the things that I love that have been introduced to me through someone else in my life. Specifically, I've been contemplating those things introduced to me during the handful of love seasons I've been lucky enough to know in the last decade or so of my still young life. I often find myself curious over learned loves, more than the loves I've discovered myself, because I wonder: did I love these things because the one I loved, loved them? Or did I honestly discover things--songs, books, philosophies, foods, locations and lifestyles--that my soul had silently been yearning for?

This question was with me today as I drove the East Side highway back towards Missoula after teaching my two afternoon classes in Hamilton. I'm fortunate to have the use of a University vehicle when I make these twice-weekly trips, and even luckier still, I get a vehicle pimped out with an i-Pod hookup, something my nearly twenty-year-old pick-up-truck cannot boast. Needless to say, I work those speakers in the little red Ford Focus when it's a sunny afternoon in late March, and the highway meanders between open fields dotted with new birth, new growth, hopeful life.

As I was turning onto the stretch of road that traces, in a rather straight line, the view of the cut Bitterroot Mountains out my driver's side window, a song came on that I almost moved to skip. Just for a moment, though, and for what was long enough, I stopped myself, and listened. It had been my instinct to move past the song and on to another, because the music, in an instant, reminded me of a person and a way of life I've lost, and thus, made me remember pain. Once I'd loved the song because there was a man I'd loved who'd loved it. I listened for him, hoping to see the world, see sound, see instrument and lyric the way he did. In the season of love, I gave little thought to the idea that I might actually love the song, all on my own. I simply knew that the man loved it; therefore, I loved it too.

Let me clarify: I know myself. I know who I am. I know, at the core of my existence, what makes me whole and happiest. I would not jump off a cliff simply because my lover wanted to; I would not eat a plateful of oysters simply because my lover espoused their delicacy. I know what I like and don't like, but like most people, when I am working to get to know and understand someone, I want to give their interests and passions due diligence; I seek to figure them out by experiencing that which gives them joy. Is not love the pursuit of understanding, admiration, acceptance, and communion? Do we not reach these states by opening our minds to the perspectives and emotions and passions of others? I believe so.

A strange thing happened to me as I continued to listen to this song; I felt as if some small part of me was becoming quenched after a season of dryness. I loved these sounds, this low tone, this vibration of note, that extended lyric. I loved it. The song still reminded me of the person and life I'd lost--and I believe that it always will, but I also believe that that reminding is a great blessing: in the seasons of love I've yet known, one hundred and more loves have come my way, brought before me by good men.

What the world has to offer is owned by none. One man, he taught me ocean tides, but the tides are not his; they offer themselves to be loved by anyone, purely. Another man, he taught me mountains. Long I'd gazed after them, been comforted by them, been home among them; now I know them in greater intricacy, and how in love I am. They belong to none but everyone.

Maine. Mountain peaks. The strum of a shy guitar. The punch of fist to risen dough. The scent of wood smoke. A neatly stacked wood pile. Nag Champa. Lobster claws. Clean cut of wood; well sanded and smoothed. Hamburgers and sweet potato fries. Fleet Foxes. Townes Van Zandt. Early to bed. Early to rise. Sleep atop a mountain; climb down in the morning light.

All this life, available to love, learned from another. I am forever grateful.

Thanks for reading.


Monday, March 26, 2012

City, brimming.

Washington D.C. is full to brimming: Tulips. Daffodils. Gnarled Magnolia limbs with waxy white and scarlet petals. Hundreds of pink blossomed trees. Blossoms overhead, still unfurling, still clinging. Fallen blossoms underfoot on wet cement and asphalt, on the sheen of windshields and the black grooves of car tires; the newest hue is cherry blossom pink. Everything, everything, a carpet, an emergence, of lush, new, life. The slender tree that grows from the bricked patio outside my sister and her fiance's apartment is two lives at once: brown branch and magenta bloom--one gives something necessary to the other: a grounding force, a flourish of hopeful birth. In this place, I remember: humidity. My hair follicles swell, my skin becomes dewy, my running clothes are slow to relinquish their dampness. It is not yet the difficult season, when humidity meets heat, so I am able to know this swollen air with fondness; I let it quench the dryness that a Montana winter has bestowed. No more nosebleeds here. No more cracked skin.

Washington D.C. is full to brimming: People. Men in clean suits, their shoes polished mirrors. Women in heels and dresses. They know where they are going: this train track, that bus stop, that corner, this crossing. Everyone knows how to rush: keep moving, don't look up, don't apologize, go your own way. After three days I am better at following my sister's small force through the crowd, but I still fear the grate of the escalator, imagining a tumble and metal teeth on the skin of my forehead, a stinging humiliation worse than struck limbs. I hold on to the railing; I try to look as if I know what I am doing. Amidst this mad push, it is easy for me to let loose my judgment; I want people to stop honking, to stop forcing their way through, to look where they are going, to smile in passing. Sometimes this happens, but more often the goal amidst the chaos seems to simply be the destination, the getting done, the surviving. The greatest loneliness is felt in the full room, the throng and bustle. Yet in the bustle I have found connection: the woman at the corner table in the restaurant has a laugh like my mother's. The man sitting across from me on the D2 bus is reading the novel I loved last July. The girl standing on the street corner wears the dress I admired in the storefront window. Every single racing soul takes heart at the trees in bloom, at their pathway now strewn with petals. In the crush of the hurried life, these small relations--notice them, keep them. Call them shared life. Call them blessed. Know them to be before you for a reason.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Feelings. Plus Toaster Oven Fires.

 Once, when I was in college, I started a fire in my grandparents' kitchen. Two fires, actually. One in the toaster oven, and one in the microwave. I'm not quite sure why I still remember this day so clearly; the fires were small and easily contained; my grandparents never even knew; nothing was ruined save for a piece of toast and a leftover cup of coffee. Still, when I think about my grandparents, and, especially, the house in which they lived for nearly sixty years, among one thousand memories, complete and disparate, is this one: my nineteen-year-old nervous self, trying to be helpful by making breakfast, waving a dishtowel at a smoking toaster oven, hugely embarrassed and desperate to keep my clumsiness, my mistake, hidden.

Keep myself hidden. Keep my mistakes, awkwardness, embarrassment, sadness, pride, silliness, ignorance, jealousy, judgement...hidden. Is this a good thing? Writing this blog seems to embody a kind of all-out opening to me; a stripping of veils and curtains and comfortable clothes. Each time I sit down to write, I am eager; I feel like I'm finally tapping into the core of who I am, of what I like to do, and this is wonderful, of course. It's also a little selfish, and it's a lot scary. My blog-post writing regimen goes something like this: 1) Get an idea in the middle of (grading papers, going for a run, cooking dinner, cleaning the bathtub, walking the dog, eating oatmeal, teaching class, running errands...any activity that requires me to be focusing on something else). 2) Sit down at the computer and write (slowly, quickly, in bursts of clarity and distraction). 3) Re-read every single word--several times--to at least rid myself of the gnawing notion of a word missed or spelled wrong. 4) Post. 5) Feel good. Feel good because...I'll say it: I'm a writer, and I've just written. What comes next, after that thirty-minute window of warm glow, is this voice: Who says you're so special? Who says that what you've just said hasn't been said a thousand times before, in a thousand better ways? People who read this are going to think you are: long-winded, redundant, unoriginal, pompous, irritating; they're going to think that you spend way too much time contemplating how you feel.

This last one is the one that sticks at me the most, and I've come to believe that the insults (imagined or real) that cut us most deeply are the sharpest knives because somewhere way back (or not so way back) in our minds, we know them to be true. We think them, ourselves. I do spend way too much time contemplating my feelings. I am, as my father would say, a 'naval-gazer'. I worry and wonder, endlessly, at my own shyness, my own seeming lack of confidence, at my desire to hide away all mistakes (oven fires and bad haircuts included). I spend inordinate amounts of times trying to figure out the feelings of myself and others; I read self-help books; I practice arm-chair psychology. A part of this may be because I'm a woman (a generalization I feel I'm allowed to make since, well, I'm one of the guilty party), but the other part, I've come to realize, is that I was born of a family of naval-gazers. Why then, if it's in my blood, do I often feel so apologetic when some of that self-analysis gets out in the open?

I have a wonderful family; we love to talk, debate, analyze, figure out. We are also--almost every single one of us--incredibly introverted. We love to talk, sure, but mostly with each other, and even then we catch ourselves apologizing for taking up so much of each others' time, for 'bogarting' the conversation, for holding forth or making proclamations, even if we might know exactly what we're talking about. We're talkers; we're also 'I don't know-ers'. I was born to it. It's in every cell of my being.

Which is why, of course, I feel such a heady mix of joy and remorse when I sit down to write here, in this space. This space is my holding forth, my grand proclamation, my ultimate bogart. Why should anyone want to know what I am feeling or thinking? I actually don't really know why, but the truth is: I don't really care (right now, at least.) For sure, there are things about ourselves we ought to grapple with silently; my jealousy doesn't do anyone any good (especially myself), so I'm not going to talk about it. My judgments are misplaced, and they never, ever, come from a place of love, so I'm not going to talk about them. In my life, I want to strive to be humble (even while writing a blog all. about. me.), so I'm not going to talk about how great I think I am. I've come to learn (after too long not seeing) that you can't change anyone but your own self, and shouldn't ever try, so I'm not going to complain about anyone else. There are also things, though, that I'm coming to think are important to admit, to stop hiding from. We're all awkward. We're all clumsy. We all think we're uncool. We all worry that what we're saying might be wrong. (Right?) One of the reasons I love my family so much--and why I love the close circle of friends I've cultivated in my life--is because in the midst of our analytical, long-winded, often emotionally charged, often alcohol softened conversations, no one tries to pretend like they've got it all figured out. We may take turns holding forth, but we laugh at ourselves while we're doing it, and we give thanks afterwards.

I'm not really sure what to say now. I've got a cat on my lap, vying for my affection, a dog scratching at the front door, and the nagging feeling that I started off this post by writing about lighting a kitchen on fire, which really relates in no way to anything I've just said. Undoubtedly, after I finish this post, my blog-pride hangover will be immense, but I'll go for that 'not caring' thing and try to bring it home:

Once, when I was in college, I started a fire in my grandparents' kitchen. Two small fires. Easily managed, when you got right down to it, but at nineteen I left their house feeling awkward and sort of dangerous and irresponsible...over a toaster oven fire. Over a flame two inches high. Over a ruined piece of toast. When I remember that nineteen-year-old girl, I want to look at her and say: laugh. I want her to make a noise in the kitchen instead of silently fanning the flames; I want her to say: "Oh dear. I seem to have started a fire in your kitchen!" She says this. She says this, and in comes her grandmother, who loves her. Together they put out the fire, throw away the charred toast, dump out the scalding coffee. Later her grandmother will say, "I do that all the time. I know exactly how you feel."

Thanks for reading.


Monday, March 12, 2012

I Don't Know

Admission:  I am terrified that I am going to do something wrong. I am terrified that I'm going to make a mistake, to miss a sign, to choose wrong. I often feel--physically, mentally, emotionally--quite caught, tangled up in a web of my own making. These days, this web is barb and wire and when I move in one direction, I'm pricked by some painful memory, some jolt of fear, some wave of sadness or regret or longing. Which way do I move? What choice do I make? Admission: I am so tired of trying to figure it out.

My mother, who has always been and will always be one of my greatest soul mates, said this to me on the telephone last night: "Just do what you want. Do anything you want. Do all of it." She said it with a laugh, which made me laugh, and lighten up a bit, and lightening up is a good thing to do: remember--it's not all so complicated. When you're in the middle of huge transition, it's okay to spend a good amount of days waking up too late, going to sleep too late, doing this, not doing that, writing that person a letter, not writing the other letter, bailing out and mailing neither, choosing yes, choosing no, simply because you want to in that moment. Deep in transition, it's nearly impossible to see far down the line; what's visible is really only the next moment in time, and the tenor of that moment--all its specific desires and sour tastes.

It's really damn easy to say "I don't know". In almost all conversations I have, I have a tendency to follow up my thoughts and statements with a reflexive "I don't know". This has often bothered me about myself, because these three words seem to negate my own authenticity, my own experience, knowledge, and curiosity, which, in fact, I do know, and well. On the flip side though, I like to see this refrain as a symbol of something else I always want to have, and something I deeply respect in others who have it: an open and welcoming mind. The capacity to admit limits in understanding, ability, and intellect. Those who can do this are those who are humble. I like them best, and I want to be like them.

Still, saying "I don't know" and feeling--living--"I don't know" are two very different animals. One can be tossed off the tongue unconsciously, instinctively; the other is much deeper, and it cuts to the quick of what transition is--a period utterly swathed, no room for breath, in not knowing.

All of this sounds rather depressing and hopeless, and there is that, too, but I'm also coming to believe that there's simplicity in this state of being; maybe even a bit of lightness, as my mother reminded me. If we can own up to what we cannot do--right now; if we can admit to feeling paralyzed by indecision--right now; if we can simply make choices--moment to moment, and train our minds to feel some brand of tough love for the not knowing...then I think we'll be okay. I think the web will loosen.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Places, Part One.

Salem, Oregon.
Tiny apartment. Two year old running up and down the hallway after her bath. Mother with second baby in her belly. Tawny dog named after a Montana town. Nearby there is an ocean, and a beach cabin with dirty windows and a hand on the sill. There are sand dollars, none of them pure, lined in a long wooden boat on the ledge inside the stairwell. In this cabin, they recall, they took the best nap of their lives. This is what they remember clearly: rest.

Helena, Montana. House on Breckenridge. 
That I do not remember. The stories: the time the basement flooded, water over earth four feet deep, and the girl peering down at its depth. The Halloween that was twenty below zero, but the girl, then five, dressed in costume and snowsuit and took our father's hand for one block of trick-or-treating. "After three houses, she was done," our father recalls, still. We imagine him how we cannot remember him: slim and black-haired; heavily bearded. Our mother married a handsome man. They fell quickly.

Helena, Montana. House on Winne. 
Enter: Sally. Blonde haired and blue eyed, grey eyed, our father's eyes. In this house, before the remodel, the basement rooms were cement and filtered light. Were dark corners and uncovered wooden beams, bones. A white mouse named Mary is kept in a cage next to the washing machine. In winter months, on the braided rug that tries to warm the space, we play with our rabbits--feeding them bits of turnip and celery and always fearing them, just a little--their hard teeth and strangely silent faces. We were brought up as timid children, a product of greatest love. Too much shelter.

Missoula, Montana. Apartment. 
In this place, I live alone. There is a small black cat and an anxious orange dog for company. The water heater is finicky and the shower too small--I wish to be three inches shorter, again. I make do. This apartment leaks heat in the winter like a cracked cup, but there is always light in any season. My father--no longer a black-haired, bearded man, though no less loving--he calls this place 'the garret.' It is not a garret in the true sense--no attic eaves or dirty windows overlooking a mad city. It is still a space tucked away and tiny, and I understand that in his unspoken way, my father is envious of this part of my life--the utter autonomy I have. His advice to me has always been two-fold: find a desk and a hard-backed chair and do your work well. Afterwards, he says, 'stuff yourself'--with everything your town, your youth, has to offer you. As a young man, before marriage, my father went traveling. In school he discovered politics. He discovered history and law and what it meant to really talk with his fellows--to debate, argue, consider, while drinking beer. Then he met my mother and his life was stuffed with other stuff. Love. A two year old running down a hallway. A woman with a growing belly. An ocean and a dead-limbed nap; everyone sleeping, even the babies. Flooded basements and white mice. Turnips for rabbits. A child. Two. A third. A little girl who still wanted to trick-or-treat with him in below zero weather in her costume and snowsuit. One block was all she needed, he still remembers. Then she was done.

Thanks for reading.