Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I know they think I am a strange person. They see me sitting in a curtainless room with no furniture but the chair I sit on, playing my bass that isn’t plugged into anything, smoking cigarettes hour after hour under the light of the hanging bulb. They see that I don’t stop to exchange chats in the street with my neighbors, that in fact I don’t even know who my neighbors are. Something inside is solitary and this makes people uneasy. The turning point of my life came when the man of my dreams became the spectre of my nightmares. I was glad when he took everything with him; I could take the nothingness he left behind and wrap it around me like a Salvation Army blanket.
The music I listen to comes through the walls.
As I sit and finger the fat steel strings of my bass, I think about all the paths in life that we get to choose from. I think about how, if we could see them, there are lines like veins, networks of possibility in front of our feet every second of life. We thread our way through them as if we didn’t care, as if it made no difference which strand we followed. Do we really think that we will end up a few feet ahead of where we started, no matter what?
Every point is a turning point. Every moment sets us off on another journey. Tomorrow when the sun rises, I am going to get out of bed, wash my hair, sweep the floor and then wash it. Then I will wax it and polish it with my hair. I will leave the chair where it is, and I will put my bass in its case and put it in the trunk of my car. Then I will close and lock the door behind me and drop the key in the ivy. I’ll wave to my nosey neighbor who has nothing to do all day but hang around her garbage cans looking to see what other people are doing. I’ll say, “Hi, how’s it going?”
Then I’ll get in my car and turn the radio on loud. After about fifty miles I’ll start to hum, and I figure by the time I’ve driven three or four hundred miles, I’ll be singing.
Renais Jeanne Hill
The normal process of our lives seems to me to be an endless series of forks in the road, like branches of the same tree. Each moment brings a choice, voluntary or involuntary. The turning point is dramatic, perhaps unexpected. Sometimes it’s like one of those Texas ninety-degree road corners Pat Ellis Taylor wrote about in THE SUN [Issue 110]; other times it resembles Alice’s garden path that just “got up and shook itself.”
I recall two turning points in my own life. One was sitting alone on a playground swing at the age of nine and suddenly realizing that I was glad to be female. The other I described to my friends as a “religious conversion.” At college I had received the news of my brother’s attempted suicide in a state mental hospital. That evening I watched a curly-haired flutist give a concert and literally saw an angel! I was filled with faith: the knowledge that we are connected to a positive, creative life force. Although ten years later I still cannot give it a name other than love, this inspiration had remained clearly with me.
A friend recently expressed to me his longing to “have a cage come down around” him to keep him from doing harmful things like smoking. I think many people are yearning for a turning point, preferably initiated from without. Many others (perhaps the same folks) are spending a lot of energy keeping away from that new path. We dread to change and yet we are changing every second.
I do not look for the dramatic or the irresistible to occur in my life very often. Far better to practice attention and allow the growing to develop at its own pace.
Recently I learned that it was possible to share romantic love with someone in addition to my husband. This turning point is just as important as the two I have mentioned above, but it took a long time to come about. I wonder whether “turning point” is really a helpful term or whether it blinds us to the revelations of every day, the continuing negotiations of responsiveness and responsibility.
John came by my house yesterday. He knows I sit around on Saturday waiting for something to happen. (That’s my interpretation of the Sabbath.) Yesterday I was reading THE SUN.
John’s a tall guy from Virginia who likes to walk without saying much.
“I gave notice at my job,” he told me as we walked down Payson Avenue. John’s been an editor at Matthew Bender four years, and he’s been working his way up. That’s a real turning point, I thought.
“Can I interview you for THE SUN?” I asked.
“How do you feel?”
“Pretty good. A little scared.”
We went to Peter and Bettina’s house. Bettina’s job at NYU finishes in two weeks, then she gets on unemployment and goes back to her book on Nelson Algren.
“I have no immediate plans to return to work,” Bettina said.
She heard that my old girlfriend, Marianne, just reached Nicaragua and starts teaching Monday.
“When are you going to India?” Peter asked me.
“Pretty soon,” I said.
John and I split an apple and then left.
“I want to show you something,” I told him when we reached Broadway.
I led him down 217th Street to a one-story brick building with the inscription “Marble Hill Dog And Cat Crematorium.” We walked behind it to a small garden covered with snow. Under the snow were rows of cast iron markers, three inches high. Each had a flat side covered with plastic, most of which were obscured by dust.
I wiped away the dirt on one. “Candy,” it said. “June 1963.”
We walked down Ninth Avenue in silence.
New York, New York
There is a theory that says a society evolves in much the same way as an individual, learning from periods of self-destructiveness, movements brought to fruition, or natural disasters. I’ve experienced a variety of turning points: cutting off a finger, having a baby, discovering hallucinogens, receiving unexpected money, the breaking up of a marriage, and falling in love. Basic stuff.
Real change is cumulative and anyone would be hard pressed to say just exactly where the point of turning occurred. Anyhow, the end result of these fortunes and misfortunes was a decision to survive or at least admit my biological propensity for survival and then get on with it. Sometimes I try to figure out what the equivalent age of our society is, compared to a person, by trying to describe its composite personality and match it with my view of personal growth. Usually I decide that our society is in its early to mid-twenties, harboring a self-destructive impulse, not yet convinced of the dangers that may accompany a diet of toxins, maintaining a cocky confidence, yet being primarily pulled on by an unacknowledged survival instinct. What I wonder is, what will be the turning point that will empower our society to finally admit that we want to survive and then get down to the business of doing it with style?
Breast cancer struck seemingly out of nowhere that January ten years ago, and the terror built steadily in small steps, until what had begun with a “non-suspicious” lump careened ever more frighteningly to a modified radical mastectomy, to lymph node involvement, and finally to a prognosis that the cancer might already have metastasized and become incurable.
It was about five days after my surgery when the doctor came to my room with the pathologist’s report. I heard words: “location of the lesion,” “lymph nodes,” “probable spread,” “cobalt radiation,” “oncologist.” I stared at him, but I was too numb to absorb what he was saying. All I could think about was, why is he telling me these things? Isn’t it enough that I’ve lost my breast? How dare he sit there and tell me I may die! I haven’t even lived yet!
I was forty-two years old. I had a wonderful husband, Terry, and we loved our sons, Chuck and Brad, beyond all loving. They were thirteen and eleven. But I had a demanding, self-centered, grasping mother whose needs I had always put before my own. As she kept reminding me, she was old and sick, while I had my whole life ahead of me. How was I now to face the fact that my life could indeed be ending before I had ever grabbed hold of it?
After the doctor left, I sat motionless on the edge of my hospital bed, my arms wrapped tightly around myself. I was afraid that if I moved them, I would disappear, and that if I didn’t remain absolutely still, my body would break into thousands of pieces. Terry tried to get through to me that afternoon, as did friends. They reached out to offer me their strength, but I could only sit huddled and rigid for hours.
But then, my body began to relax and my mind became alert and aware. A curious strength started to infuse me, a strength made of some kind of bond between myself and everything and everyone I had ever loved. I experienced the community of healing which Deena Metzger wrote of in THE SUN [Issue 110]. It came to me in the form of love which flowed back and forth between me, my family, my friends, and some of the nurses. I felt a power I’d never felt before, as if I had the combined strength of everyone who wanted to help me, and the combined life force of everyone I loved.
I knew then that I could fight back. I would rage against the cancer in my body with all the physical and spiritual power I felt surging within me. I knew that cancer was a formidable opponent, but I also knew I’d be no easy victim.
I received six weeks of cobalt radiation that Winter. When I lay on the table, I opened my body to the silent rays and commanded the massive machine above me, “Do your stuff. The fight is on!” The doctors were professional and noncommittal. They gave me pep talks about cancer being a chronic disease and they tried to get me to come to terms with the fact that I might not get well. But I possessed an energy. My family and friends reached out to sustain me, and I focused that strength on every cancer cell in my body.
In the meantime, I embraced life. Every breath was delicious, and every tree a painting. Colors became beautifully vivid; sounds became music. I experienced joys and sorrows to their limits because they were the stuff of life. The people I loved became even dearer to me. I drank it all in, and I was at one and at peace with life, and even with death.
I lost my other breast to cancer four years after the first, but there has been no further spread of the disease. This past October, after ten years, my doctor finally said to me, “You’re going to be all right. You’ve been through a lot, but I can tell you now, you’re going to be all right.”
I do not glorify cancer. It’s a monster that kills and destroys, and not everyone who fights it wins, no matter how hard they try. But I know that if I hadn’t had to do battle with it, I wouldn’t have changed. I’d still be strolling aimlessly through the days, believing that life was not for now, but for later. And I’d still feel, somehow, a stranger here, not knowing that all I had to do was to hold out my hand and another hand would grasp it, not knowing that’s what really matters anyway.
Park Forest, Illinois
So where is it? It seems I’ve been walking for ages, looking for that “T,” that fork in the road, that turning point that will force me into a decision and, with luck, set me on the path that climbs into the Highlands — the land of Three Eyes and Unbounded Love.
But this road goes on and on. My feet and legs are caked with the mud from trudging through my own insecurities: those quagmires that seem to slow progress, clinging to me with their sticky, self-centered oozings.
And then there are the flowers in my hair — reminders of the light, steady walks through bright open fields of wild flowers and broad vistas.
Still, the road is the road, and good follows bad follows good. I want a different road; I want to turn one way or the other; I want a clear, cut and dried choice. But ahead the road stretches, the only constancy in the ever changing landscape around me.
I can’t handle it anymore. I’m tired of walking, of getting nowhere. I sit down in the middle of the road and look back from whence I came. Only then do I realize how glorious the view is from up here.
We all have a war within us between the healthy child and the damaged child. This war wages on long after we think it ends — for most of us, for our whole lives — and robs us of our energy to naturally develop from one stage of maturity to the next, as a flower seed, with rain and sun and good soil, breaks open to sprout roots, stem, leaves, bud, flower, and seeds for the next generation. Anytime we feel intimidated by a good-looking woman (or man) or by a smart talker; anytime we change our behavior in front of a boss; anytime we are unduly impressed (or depressed) by a human accomplishment to the point that we denigrate our own work and struggles; anytime we feel anxiety about the love or approval or safe arrival of a “loved” person, our healthy inner child has yielded ground to its foe, the damaged inner child and its poor self-esteem.
To rally behind the healthy child and root out this damage is anything but a simple task. The enemy is so subtly entwined with our innocence — call this innocence spontaneity, joy, wonder, self-love (as opposed to egotism, poor self-esteem wearing the mask of self-love, protesting too much) — that often we’ve been tricked onto the wrong side of the battlefield and fought alongside the enemy we were trying to subdue. We’ve found that the healthy child and the damaged child were so entwined that they had one root, or seemed to, which made their separation a more delicate operation than our hands were trained to attempt. The cancer analogy is obvious. Our neurosis is combined with our health the way cancer combines with healthy tissue. It is a very difficult fight to get clean of it. In our youth we assumed it was a matter of a little courage and a good clean shot from our slingshot to slay this Goliath, but later, as David learned, there was a much subtler giant Goliath inside us that wasn’t so easy to slay.
For example, how do we know if our defensiveness against our boss’s power is coming from the damaged or healthy side of our nature, or from both at once? (How does one slay Goliath when one also is Goliath?) It is a sign of healthy self-esteem not to allow oneself to be run over by another; but carry the resistance a baby step further, and one has to question the involvement of the damaged child: general defensiveness, intransigence, paranoia. How do we know for sure what’s where, where’s what?
Another example: it is a sign of health and our capacity to love to be concerned over the late arrival of a loved one; but carry that concern one step further and one has the beginnings of an anxiety attack, which has no real concern for the other in it, but is one’s unresolved abandonment terrors activated.
The examples are manifold. When are we healthily loving our children, and when are we neurotically living through them? When are we loving our wives and husbands, innocently, joyously, and when are we possessing them like scared children clinging to their parents? When do we travel out of an innate sense of curiosity to see the world and to expand our awareness, and when do we travel to escape from ourselves? When is our reaching for people a healthy need for companionship; when is it a fear of solitude? When is solitude a reflection of healthy self-love, self-containment; when is it a fear of people?
To me a turning point relates always to this struggle for mastery between our real and unreal selves, mapping these inner dimensions correctly by making incredibly sensitive discriminations between our natural powers and their perverted pretenders, and then to fight the battles on the side we really want to be on. After that turning point, after the maps are correctly drawn and followed so that we side always with our positive self-esteem against our negative (conditioned) self-concept, the rest is straight to God, I think, with enough time and any good luck at all.
Petersburg, West Virginia
I have had several experiences which were dramatically illuminating and liberating for me. The best metaphor for describing these experiences is waking up as if from a bad dream or a trance into a state of intense aliveness and awareness. What comes to mind is Ouspensky’s description, in In Search of the Miraculous, of walking down the street and everyone appearing to him to be a puppet or automaton mechanically going about his or her business. Everyone is asleep in the world dream. He has broken out of this ordinary trance and is absolutely amazed by his awareness.
Twenty years ago, at the age of thirty-four, I was at a crossroads in my life. I had been working as an executive for a high technology growth company in California. As I walked into my office one day and prepared to sit down at my desk, I experienced a deep void in my gut. I felt like vomiting and at that moment, I thought, “What am I doing here?” I slumped into my chair and realized that I was totally bored with the work I was doing. It had ceased to have any meaning or purpose for me.
That night, I dreamt I was walking in a desert, alone. Gradually I became aware of the increasing heat, and as I watched the fierce white sun rise in the desert sky, I felt more and more uncomfortable. And afraid. I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I now felt my legs tightening up, becoming leaden; it was increasingly difficult to continue walking. As it got hotter and hotter, I became more tired, hot and afraid. There were no roads and I began to wonder why I was walking. Was there an escape from this unrelenting sun? And why was I walking toward the sun, anyway? I became paralyzed as I realized there was no point in struggling further. There was no place to go, no escape from my reality. Trying to cool down, I took off my clothes. Confused, naked and on my knees, I suddenly burst into flames. I woke up.
Reflecting on the dream, I thought of a photograph that had appeared in the New York Times during the Vietnam war of a Buddhist monk who had doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire to protest the war. Although engulfed with flames, he appeared perfectly calm and at peace within himself. His body was in a lotus position, and his eyes were wide open, looking at the photographer.
The first time I had the dream, I did not consciously understand all that was happening. A few weeks later, I had the same dream again. And I began to see the connection between my dream and my external life situation.
A week later, I attended a workshop about guided daydreams or fantasies and the same dream came back to me again as a waking dream. This time, however, I felt the excruciating pain of burning alive. I cried as I never had before.
That night, I had another dream:
I was floating across a deep blue river. With no effort on my part, I came to rest under the shade of a huge towering oak tree on the bank of the river. A gentle wind was blowing and I felt utterly at peace, completely safe and secure. As I surveyed the rolling green hills of this new landscape in this new world, I felt reborn. I woke up.
I was awake at the age of thirty-four and newly born. All the anxiety, the pain and fear of living, was gone. I left my job. I had learned that any attempt to avoid pain just prolongs our death.
Louis David Salomone