The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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UNTIL the age of twelve, I yearned to be a rock star. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison — I idolized those who raged and loved in gargantuan volumes. Every day, I mimicked them, stomping and screaming and wiggling my hips on the rim of the bathtub and on my bed. Like them, I sought to be loud and impossible to ignore. I wanted to be a magnet for light and attention — spotlights and strobes, camera lenses and multitudes of young faces. Sometimes at night, in the woods behind my parents’ house, I sang about purple planes and bombs and chains (I routinely misheard the words of my favorite songs) and tossed my fuchsia-and-gold-dyed hair while trying to grab handfuls of the summer-warm air above my head. I felt all the light of the galaxy focus upon me, and I reflected that light back, glowing like a jewel, a treasure, a human-shaped star.
I yearned for the splash and glamour of the rock star’s life because I was convinced that intense attention made a thing real, while lack of attention robbed it of existence. If a tree fell in the forest and no one heard, I thought, then its death was insignificant. For the fall to be meaningful, a crowd of media and fans needed to encircle the tree as it swayed and groaned and finally came crashing down. I applied the same ruthless judgment to myself: if I fell and no one saw — and so gave me no pity, praise, or attention — then the fall did not count.
After my first year of high school, I began to listen less to the loud, raging words of rock stars (who were getting old and dying, one after the other) and instead listened to stars of a different sort — the kind who gave off an eternal, divine light.
Part of me had long been aware of the values of wisdom and compassion. When I was seven, one of my mom’s friends had told me the story of Buddha, who’d sat beneath the Bodhi tree, waiting for enlightenment. I’d envisioned him as a clear-skinned, faithful youth gradually growing old beneath the tree until, when he was a man of my father’s age, a small pulse of light began to beat over his left breast. A saint, I’d realized, was one who generated his or her own light from some source of energy within. Saints didn’t need electricity or camera lenses or even other people — just a strong heart.
Now I thought more of Buddha: how had he known that he did not have to hurry, strain, and scream to win eternal fame? For answers, I studied the words of Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Henry David Thoreau. They all wrote enchantingly about the golden light of truth — which, for them, was synonymous with freedom. They spoke out against greed, war, slavery, and submission to arbitrary authority, and advocated, instead, time to appreciate earthly beauty and the opportunity to live out one’s destiny unrestrained.
To be unrestrained, I saw, one needed more than simply a fair government: one needed to pray, to purify, to quiet the “monkey mind” and open oneself to inner peace. I began fervently to study the poetic and religious texts that promised to help me do this. I let my dyed hair grow out to a natural dirty blond. I wore fewer sequins and more cotton. I wrote in a journal daily. At the age of fifteen, I lay on my bed and copied out the poems, letters, and essays of my favorite authors with the same intensity with which I had once screamed out the lyrics of Janis and Jimi. I learned stanzas, paragraphs, even whole pages by heart, and eventually absorbed so many words that the authors seemed to reside within me. Rather than ponder the world from my own confused perspective, I listened to their voices for advice. Tagore, Gandhi, King, and Thoreau sat at a round table in my head, their hands folded and resting on its shiny surface, and whenever I had a decision to make — should I break up with my current boyfriend? what should my college major be? — these wise men would confer amiably across the table and come up with a course of action for me to follow.
More than anything else, my inner advisors urged me to put down their books and work actively on behalf of the causes they espoused. Thanks to them, much of my late-adolescent life was dedicated to serving others’ needs rather than my own. I volunteered at a homeless shelter and a food-salvage organization, and I devoted a year to working for Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity in Calcutta. I had gone from seeking glamour to fulfilling moral obligations, but what hadn’t changed was my belief about existence: If I felt sympathy for a woman sleeping on a sidewalk in twenty-degree weather, but didn’t approach her and ask her to come home with me for a meal — and perhaps create with her a campaign to open another women’s homeless shelter in our neighborhood — then my feelings weren’t real. Nothing was real, for me, if it was not affecting other people. Can you be a rock star without an audience? Can you claim to feel compassion if you are sitting still in solitude, touching no one? If a tree falls, if a dream falls, if a faith fails, and there is no one to witness it, who will know, who will care, what will happen?
As a result of my philosophy, I was always exhausted and usually guilty. I could never do enough: suffering, sickness, and deprivation remained despite my frenzied activities. I often woke before 5 A.M. and did not stop working till nine at night. I didn’t go to parties or movies; I didn’t drink alcohol; I ate mainly bread and rice; I gave up reading and writing in order to be an ever available worker. Still, the men at the round table suggested that I could do more. What mattered was using my energy to benefit others in a material way. All else was insubstantial, and therefore nonessential.
Looking back on that time, I see some accomplishments I am proud of and some activists with whom I feel fortunate to have worked. And yet, I also see a very lost and tired girl who, despite her large black boots and determined stance, had weary eyes and a spirit bent double under the weight of questions about her worth and about the value of human life in general.
ON the day of my twenty-sixth birthday, a Monday, I woke up sick with a fever and a deep cough. I remember thinking, I am ill, and yet, at the same time, sensing that the flu was my birthday gift. I felt that I needed to use it. As if under orders, I called in sick to work and, ignoring the aches in my joints and the pain in my chest, dressed for a hike up Mount Monadnock, an hour and a half away in New Hampshire. The philosophers I’d read had each made a pilgrimage, an ascension, a half-random journey in search of a sign, and now I needed to make one, too.
The day was cold — zero degrees, at best. The wind was fierce, and my boots were old and not well-made. Climbing the mountain, I had to stop every ten minutes to catch my breath and wipe the fever-induced sweat from my neck and face. Still, I was enchanted by the beauty that surrounded me. The beech, birch, and poplar trees were white-and-silver skeletons rattling winter’s hollow bones all around. The few fir trees I saw made me think of Christmas, with their dark green branches bowed with crisp white drifts of snow. The sky was white, too, pressing low upon the ground, softening the rocky rises and dips into one smooth, opaque pathway.
About five hundred feet from the summit, I had to stop. The wind was rising, and snow had begun to fall in a thick, silent curtain across the mountain. Resting for one last moment before heading back, I leaned against a hunk of granite the size of three men. Along its side, I noticed a waterfall frozen in midstream. I brushed the snow from it: miniature rose-gold stars bloomed within its shiny, translucent surface. Running my hand along its curves, I felt as if I were touching a living being — a dolphin, an orca, an undiscovered creature soon to be released down the mountain by the oncoming spring.
As my imagination played with the thick slab of ice, my chest began to feel squeezed until I could hardly breathe. The cause was not my cold, nor the exertion of the hike: it was sadness. I realized, at that moment, that I had spent so many years denying the beautiful, the inexplicable. I had become a severe and limited person leading a severe and limited life. And, for once, the wise men in my head had nothing to say. For the first time in a long while, I knew quiet.
I didn’t want to let that sensation of quiet end. I returned from the mountain and took the next three days off from work — something I had never done before. I requested the time off partly because the flu had sunk deep into my lungs and made me dizzy, but also because I genuinely did not want to return to work. Instead, lying on my side and blowing my nose, simultaneously sweating and feeling chilled, I wrote a short story about a hip-high, fat gray monster trudging through a make-believe world in search of “my twenty-one lost years.” I sent the story, along with an application, to an artists’ colony, and was accepted. Within a few months, I was back in New Hampshire, at the base of Mount Monadnock, this time living alone in a one-room cabin. I wrote every day for a month, beginning by recording my own immediate feelings in a journal, then slipping into the voices of several teenage girls. Some were in jail, others in math class, still others trapped behind shop windows: all wanted out of whatever confines surrounded them.
None of the stories sold. Strangely, I didn’t mind. I had lived in them anyway. No one needed to read the stories or witness my hard work in order for that activity to be real.
After that, I chose to be my own teacher for a while. I didn’t want a crowd of advisors around me (or inside my head). To experience the meaningfulness of solitude, I found, is to feel whole, self-contained, to be both the seer and the seen. And to miss out on such an experience would be to doom my creative being to too narrow a life. Before my pilgrimage up Mount Monadnock, I had calculated the worth of my spirit by counting my actions, and I had judged the worth of those actions by the number of people they affected positively. But beyond such number games lay a vast terrain — limitless and immeasurable — that I now wanted to explore on my own.
Oddly, once I’d committed myself to looking inward, I began to see the outside world more clearly. I was no longer distracted by other voices and perspectives: my own heart — and mine alone — beat within me, and I could see and hear without confusion. In my mind, I returned often to my brief moment atop Mount Monadnock: First, there was the quiet. Then the wind pushing at my front and back, filling me, it seemed, with snow, until all I could see and feel was dense and white. My body was like a hollow vessel full of the chilled stillness of winter, and yet deep inside me was a frightened young girl. She was not me, exactly, but rather a figure of humanity’s common suffering — a small voice within the larger chorus.
Suffering, I could see then, was natural, a part of being human, impossible to wipe away. Social work and shelters and free blankets would not chase it out of our cities, nor our souls. Yearning and loss were inevitable parts of our lives because all of us were less the result of will or desire or morality, and more a fallout of weather, timing, luck, and what so many of us resignedly call fate.
Acknowledging the power of fate does not, of course, release any of us from our political and personal responsibilities. It merely puts politics and personhood in perspective. And I needed that perspective. I needed to feel the vast openness of the world, as opposed to the narrowness of my own mind.
I did not know then that fate was about to knock me down and hold me there, for years.
I FIRST saw Jeff when I was twenty-four, two years before my climb up Mount Monadnock. He was behind the counter in a coffee shop, and I stared at him through the large window as if he were waving bright white wings and calling out to me — which he was not. He was serving drinks to a line of customers, and I was standing outside amid a crowd of other pedestrians who, as soon as the crossing light flashed WALK, nudged me along toward the entrance to the subway.
Over the next two years, I thought often of that man in the coffee shop. I did not know his name, and I did not enter his cafe — I was too busy, I told myself. But whenever my roommates asked me why I didn’t date or why I wouldn’t let them set me up with so-and-so, I always answered, “Because I’m saving myself for the man at the Someday Cafe.”
Not long after my pilgrimage, I returned to the coffee shop, and, this time, I went inside.
It was a rainy Monday. Jeff looked glum. Cautiously, I made small talk with him. He told me about the cafe and about his growing wish to leave it; I confessed my slow shift from committed activist to less-active thinker and writer. After an hour of conversation, I no longer felt shy. After seven hours, I was in love. And after a month of daily long conversations, I was committed to this man for life.
Jeff and I shared our first kiss on Plum Island, Massachusetts, where the wind whipped the Atlantic’s waves into a frenzy and blew snow and sand against our backs. When Jeff turned my face to meet his, I felt a frozen sting against my cheek, then the soft touch of his lips on mine. Later, clutching each other’s blue fingers, we ran back to the nearby tourist town, where we drank wine in a booth, glowing like rock stars on a stage.
Within a year, we were engaged and building a small post-and-beam cabin in Vermont — our first home. We were as full of life as milkweed seedpods about to burst and bloom. Then, on September 13, 1998, Jeff was diagnosed with cancer.
How strange life is! What a story! No matter how many times I write about it or ponder it, it still stuns me and makes my stomach hurt, forcing me to lie down, sometimes for hours.
What makes life strange, I believe, is its single defining characteristic: movement. A brook runs by our Vermont cabin — which is now built, plumbed, and wired — and I often walk for miles along its banks, in winter and in summer. At every step, the brook changes; it becomes deep or shallow, wide or narrow, silent and frozen or splashing over logs and stones. I see now that we are like that water, carving our experience into life’s terrain. At certain places along the brook’s length, I recall the past. I see myself fighting with a nurse, screaming, “No more chemo!” I also see — at the miniature waterfall that borders the neighbor’s property — Jeff, ruddy and muscled, approaching me on skis, hugging me, and pushing me down in the snow.
The disease came upon Jeff without warning. The day we arrived at the hospital, doctors told us he could die before dawn. They said his cancer was terminal, but mentioned an experimental cure that would entail a year or two of debilitating, excruciating chemotherapy treatments.
Within two years, Jeff diminished from a man of Paul Bunyan’s fortitude to an invalid who hadn’t the strength to hold my hand. Between Jeff’s month-long stays in the ward, we slept in other people’s living rooms and dens or rented subsidized housing units at the hospital. Everything we owned fit into the trunk of my car. I worked only sporadically, usually at night, so I could be around to monitor Jeff’s IVs, help him eat, massage him, and try vainly to complete the endless list of errands that illness creates. The day I turned thirty, Jeff was infused with so many steroids and immunosuppressants that his muscles shook like flags battered by the wind. He could not even turn the pages of a book.
That was March 2000. I began this essay on Christmas morning of the same year, and our rivers have traveled another hundred miles since then. Jeff has been cancer-free for eleven months. His hair has grown to a length of three inches, and his arms are developing a curve of muscle (though his legs are still pencil thin). He looks like no one I have ever seen, and he moves slowly, gracefully, like an animal walking through trees at night. Occasionally, he brings home a bottle of wine for dinner and presses me against the sink with kisses before I can even open it. We have walked the brook together on many occasions, and on New Year’s Day, Jeff is planning to ski for the first time in three years. Every day feels like an anniversary: we celebrate each one for how different it is from the same date in recent years.
But here’s the trick: this, too, shall change. Jeff’s cancer could return, or a new one could bloom inside of him as a result of those toxic treatments. A house fire, a flood, a baby, a new idea — every human event, doctrine, and song acknowledges the movement and continual transformation of the rivers we call ourselves. Sometimes we rail against this truth; other times we may try to hurry it along. But movement is the inevitable reality.
A FEW days ago, a friend of Jeff’s dropped by unannounced with his wife. Jeff and I had just returned from hiking three miles through snow up to our hips, climbing up ice-slick rocks and then slipping down them, marveling at the dream blue sky, a set of fox tracks, a distant coyote, the way the beech trees still held on to their tattered golden leaves. When the visitors arrived, Jeff and I were piled upon each other like kindling by the fire — winded, wet, and a little giddy. Kissing Jeff’s face, neck, and chest, I tasted salt and what I liked to believe was new life.
“Knock, knock!” the friend called to us from behind the glass door.
I looked over my shoulder: a beard, a woman’s smile over a purple-and-red scarf, hands waving.
Jeff and I pulled apart and sat up, and the couple came in to chat. They had been driving around Vermont all weekend, looking at properties. (Ever since Jeff and I had found our land, they’d wanted some, too.) They’d seen three properties so far, none of them any good. They sighed as they sat down, snow melting off their boots and jackets and pooling on the floor around them.
“We did find two places to rent for the summer, though,” Jeff’s friend said happily. “Our boy Carl loves farm animals: big toys!” He laughed. They had two kids, a boy and a girl, and wanted very much to raise them in greener, gentler territory.
The conversation tripped on, but Jeff and I didn’t stand up, didn’t offer food or drink. Without knowing why, I felt defeated.
After maybe an hour, clouds moved in, and a fine snow began to fall. To avoid a messy drive, our visitors decided to leave. I watched through the window with relief as they shook the snow from their boots before getting into their Jeep. I still didn’t understand my cold reaction to them, but the magic of the morning seemed to have departed with their arrival, and the cabin now felt empty and eerie, like a museum after hours.
Jeff was rubbing the back of his neck, which was often tight and sore — a side effect of a medication he still took twice a day. I noticed the folds of skin around his eyes; there were so many of them. I placed a hand on his forehead, still damp from our earlier romp, and ran my palm over his head. Though getting longer, his hair was still very thin.
“They’re ten years older than us,” I said of our guests, “and they seem ten years younger.”
I knew then what it was that bothered me: I envied our visitors’ smooth, round faces, the way they flung their hands in the air when announcing plans. I thought of their two children, whose faces looked so similar to theirs. I felt like a Third World refugee looking at advertisements in an out-of-date U.S. newspaper — grapes, sofas, lingerie, the models’ straight white teeth and long bare arms. I started to cry.
“Hey,” Jeff said, putting his arms around me. “Hey.”
Usually, I tried not to express sadness, especially around Jeff: what was the point of giving voice to the obvious? I let Jeff hold me and waited for the sadness to go, but I couldn’t help thinking that he and I might as well be twenty years older than our visitors — or thirty, or forty: old people whose children have left them in a home for good, never to return. We had only each other now — fragile, mutable beings no more substantial than open windows, through which anything at all might fly: an owl, a bluebird, the final specter.
I turned my head so that we could kiss and pushed my hands up under Jeff’s damp T-shirt, along his bare skin. Although I continued to cry, the tears did not all come from sadness, but also from some more raw, unnamable emotion. For why lament that our skin was loosening more quickly than others’; that it was scarred; that one day — perhaps sooner rather than later — we would pour right out of these sacks called bodies and onto the floor of a very different world? Life, for the moment, was inside us both, and no one else needed to know how it thrummed with such energy between us. We would flow on regardless, rivers that we are. What was distant would become near; what was invisible would become material. And still, in that inevitable movement, we would always be more mystery than flesh — to each other, and to ourselves.