Saturday, December 24, 2005

Ten Years Ago, Part 2 of 4

June 1998. Mary and I are on Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon, hiking down to Phantom Ranch. We hiked back up to the South Rim the next day. I'm on the left, Mary's on the right.

On Christmas Day 1995, after visiting my friend Helen in the hospital, Mary and I had shared an hours-long walk in calf-deep snow by the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We celebrate December 25 as our anniversary -- our tenth this year -- but much had happened to prepare me for the journey.

Journal excerpts: December 1995, continued....

12/22/95 8:12 Winter Solstice. Helen goes into surgery momentarily. She sounded good last night -- is down to 117 lbs but her appetite is back.

I'll be visiting on Christmas if she's up to it. Sent up my usual brand of irreverent but heartfelt prayer.

During this time I was transcribing talks between my friend M and his student A as they interpreted the text of Genesis -- a practice known as Midrash. In addition to producing the transcripts I began to leave my own comments, entering into the discussion.

I worked until midnight on the 12/13/95 tapes -- there were two of them: 10% about Genesis and 90% about relationships. I threw in my 2 cents (knowing my verbosity, closer to $2).

I wanted to scream What Is All The Fuss About?! Thought: Thank God I'm getting to hear this, so I can see the patterns. They are both -- both, but especially M -- trapped in devices of their own making. Wallowing in it, the way I held dearly to my "insanity" in college, afraid to give it up. M goes for the drama -- he admits it -- and so is addicted to it. It may tear him apart, but he doesn't want to give it up. After being dead to emotion for so long, he now needs a saturation of it. What is also interesting is that in contrast to this, he's been making peace with his now-dead father.

8:30 pm. First of 3 sides of the 11/20/95 talk transcribed -- M's family history. He tries to second-guess, figure out why his parents and grandparents behaved as they did. This delving and delving and delving -- which I do with myself when I need to, as I did with the '77 diaries. But there's something here that comes to me as if through mists: a kind of pain that feeds upon itself. A repeating film loop. I see my childhood friend E, puzzling and re-puzzling and re-puzzling, trying to wrest a phoenix from the ashes. I suppose I know that the phoenix is dead, and I stand up and brush the ashes off and move on.

I think I've stepped outside this circle, in great part, that I hear recapitulated on tape. It's like figuring pi to the final digit: the process is unending.

In '77 I was in that vortex, but at the level of a teenager. Now what I hear on tape puzzles and troubles me: I understand and don't understand at once. Like a phantom limb trying to become reanimated so as to regain its senses, even if those senses are phantom pain. At the same time I know that the limb is gone and there's no way it's going to come back. I'm like a native who has left, adopted a new country (or returned to my original one all along), then returned to what is now a strange land (in which one has always been a stranger anyway) and tries to go native in order to understand the natives and also something vestigial and shadowy.

This morning, asking how to proceed, I drew [the Viking Rune] Othila: Retreat. Yes. Yes. Yes -- "...derived from an inheritance you must give up ... what you had assumed to be your birthright...." I could think of a dual birthright to be let go of. One is a certain detachment and the other is its opposite -- the "going native." I understood it better instinctually this morning than I do at this moment.

It's clear that something in me resonates, very strongly, with what I am hearing.

Spleen and Ideal [Referring to a painting by Carlos Schwab]. From the other side, this time. Interesting. That might be it. M puts himself down -- his father put himself down -- M struggles toward self-love. In college I saw myself as the spleen -- the not quite human woman rising from the sea to pull down a beauteous angel who is terrified and who tries to break free. I am by no means the angel now, in terms of any kind of beauteous perfection, but I identify with the angel in terms of self-love and a certain peace. And the spleen, for me, is my past self, whom I begin to integrate on a new level. And that is what M recapitulates for me.

I realized earlier that I have had coffee and a bit of Drambuie -- not the same quantities by any means of caffeine and liquor that I'd had in college, but enough to remind me. Physical restlessness, racing mind. Energies ricocheting. I'm processing stuff on levels I can't reach yet; I lie quietly and observe it happening.

Okay -- my mission is to deal with it if I can, overcome fear -- which in this case has to do with my "birthright" of detachment. Not to hurl myself into an emotional self-wounding, which is what would have happened had this vortex pulled me back into it completely.

This is the vaccine: the miniature-flu, in which I experience the symptoms but develop enough antibodies so that they don't kill me. Which is why I had to stop, tonight, after only 1 side of tape. I am at critical mass before overdose. And I need to be careful over the next few days, before our next meeting, so that I can be plugged in but not shorted out.

The difference in mood from one tape to the next is also something I need to keep aware of. There are stages of calm and stages in extremis, and now reactions to me in those terms, which in turn cause me to react in my notes. This is to be expected: I will have buttons pushed and will push in return, consciously or not. My job is to build my strength from that, rather than to let it pull me in.

12/23/95 7:30 am. I dreamt that [my coworker] J and I were driving to Florida: a few hrs drive from Massachusetts in the dream. We would overnight there during the weekend, then drive back.

It was nighttime when we arrived -- not in Miami or in any of the large cities, but out in the boondocks. Small main streets, scattered houses and churches with thin strings of Christmas lights. I thanked J for the idea of coming here, said it was perfect. Something about the removal, the anonymity.

During the day, the drive seemed to be mainly through rest stops and strip malls: dun colors, where sky matched asphalt. A good weekend activity, I thought -- but then I worried about the cats. Had I given them enough food to last that extra day? I became more concerned during our second trip, when J and I left straight from work -- so there would be 2 days without fresh food and water for the cats. We discussed something about driving back for the feeding in the middle of the trip -- which would have interfered with the whole idea of the getaway. I felt as though I'd been irresponsible, feeling very bad for the cats and very guilty for putting my pleasure ahead of their basic needs.

When I got home there was a letter I needed to mail, and something I needed to bring to M (we'd agreed over the phone that I would bring it to his apartment), both of them related. I had to bring the letter to an administration building -- dulled pastel colors -- and hand it to a guard or officer. I went up and down flights of stairs looking for the right office. When I did, one of the guards gently reprimanded me for not including the zip code; I felt slightly embarrassed and said I usually include the zip code, except in cases where I really don't know where it is, and then I usually look it up. Bringing the letter to the officer would delay my trip to M's apartment somewhat. I awoke around 7:30.

The Florida trip seems to me related to Othila: it is a retreat, a day off. J, someone I'd wanted to talk to, is my "guide" in this. Florida represents family stuff, a kind of love-hate relationship. This dream Florida, in contrast, was anonymous, stripped of associations.

So I was both "getting away from it all" -- retreating -- and inadvertently, in doing so, neglecting the animal and innocent parts of me by withholding nourishment.

The rest of the dream delays a visit to M in favor of something official and impersonal, but where I've inadvertently withheld vital information needed to deliver the letter. I am, in effect, told to be more specific, more focused. More aware.

My partner Mary and I had met in November 1994 in the "Women Writing" group at the Cambridge Women's Center. There we engaged in the type of free-writing I now facilitate in my "Writers' Circle" group at the art league. At the time I did the following exercises, Mary and I had been sitting across from each other for a bit over a year, baring our souls on paper and reading our writings aloud along with about 20 other women.

Writing Exercise: Happy New Year


Not quite what I planned, but it just came out. Oy.

Which dovetails into the project: 10 tapes transcribed, 6 more waiting and more to come. On Genesis, on the Abraham and Isaac story, on the personal relevance of it all to very candid and personal info that percolates through my headphones, making me at first a fly on the wall and now a participant.

"Include your comments," M said, whom I've known on and off for 5 years. Who called me out of the blue, said he had tapes.

And so now I confront the same emotional turmoil in the voices on the tape that I had felt myself years ago, and part of me steps back in, and part remains outside the vortex I'd fought so hard to free myself from. The trick is to remain both objective and candidly involved.

I had just been reading -- just before the tapes came -- my diary begun Jan. 1, '77, another New Year, happy in the sense of being better than Jan. '76 when I had almost killed myself. No, not a happy new year, that one. '77 was a happier new year -- I was alive. I was struggling to stay alive, battling all the voices that tried to convince me otherwise.

And now, on the tape, M battles with his own voices -- and is winning -- but the fight is uphill. I know that battle; I've done it, waged it. Now I step back into the carnage as an observer and as one who remembers, as a veteran who now feels the phantom limbs of pain but who also knows that the limbs are gone.

We meet, talk over dinner. Compare notes. Next time it will be the abuse -- his former physical deadness, my former physical deadness. There is laughter in this: uproarious, celebratory, pained.

The New Year, '96 this time, begins by testing me. Testing how far I've come, how far I can step back, how far I can trust: trust the process, trust myself, trust the person across the table who is learning to trust himself. If we had done this 3 years ago, 2 years ago, we'd have ended up as puddles on the floor.

For now, the wheel turns. The days get longer. This is magic time for me. Past becoming present become future, the Janus head looking 2 ways at once. This time I feel it keenly, and it is still magic. It is Oy, and it is Magic, that ticklish combination where I survive the war and go back knowing where the land mines are -- I just have to be very conscious of where I step. It is for me a process of reclaiming, of integrating further where previously I had feared to tread.

That college girl writing 19 years ago that she has survived. The voices on the tapes relating Genesis, wholesale destruction, creation and abuse, sacrifice and prophecy, to the private struggles that make the scripture his story as well, ending, ultimately, in self-love.

Happy New Year. One friend in the hospital, one just out, both experiencing their own private hells and me feeling helpless on the sidelines. May '96 be better. May we all be well and not sick, not helpless, not floating in limbo but renewed in spirit and in body.

The government shuts down -- I go to the office and read, then come home and work on the tapes. It is all backwards. Strange time, magic time -- just the thing to give me space to let the process happen, when the world stands still before clicking one year to the next. Cards go out to company clients who won't receive them because they are furloughed, but who will become "essential personnel" soon, by government decree. You are now essential. You are now a person.

We are all essential -- all of us, at every stage in our lives. Faced with my essentials, my essences parading across the decades, I can only move forward: into the brighter year, into the emotional minefield. Into the past that taps me on the shoulder. Into the hospital after surgery, to visit a friend grown suddenly thin but who remains cheerful, and who apologizes for not sending me a Christmas card. I want to give her a bear hug and shake her by the shoulders at the same time. I tell her, "Your greatest Christmas present to me will be to come through this with flying colors." She knows. She still feels guilty.

Like M, working to accept the pieces of himself -- that pained laughter I hear on the tape. The spontaneous laughter that burst out of him when he asked me, "How do you define God?" and I said, "How do I know?" He, who wants answers. I, who don't expect answers, only process.

Process and sharing, two good things. Intense things -- I force myself away from the tapes when I am on the cusp of weirding out. When past meets present and tries to overwhelm it -- when I spot a lit window on my way home from work and see my dorm room of 2 decades ago, and know I have to deal with it. In the '77 diary in January I wrote that Freddie Prinze, 22 yrs old, who made people laugh, put a gun to his head and blew his brains out. He was dead. I was alive. I had to remember that difference.

Now, very much alive, I step back, and forward, into Happy New Year. And may it be so.

Writing Exercise: Description

Female. In winter she is hooded, hidden in a field coat, red cap, sunglasses, neck gaiter. She looks like Cousin It. It is a source of pride, to have people stare and prefer warmth and comfort over convention. But the anonymity feels good, too, though it does not stop her from getting stopped on the street.

Her stride is sure-footed, even when she is lost. Especially when she is lost. Because everywhere is home and everywhere belongs. Because she must. Being lost means not knowing where you are, but if you are here or you are there, then you know where you are. You have two choices. Here. Or there.

Being lost means being a victim of uncertainty, which attracts those who say they will be certain for you. And so the trick is not to be uncertain, even when you are. To know the ones who are certain for you are themselves uncertain and don't know it yet. And their uncertainty is not your own. Being uncertain together is sharing, an equality. Much better than being certain, which is a lie. But one can look certain, which is instead a game.

So -- sure-footed, and hidden. Uncertain but not lost, because she is always here. Or there.

Anonymous until stopped on the street, or until the layers come off -- but they come off only where it is already warm and comfortable. She refuses to freeze for the sake of fashion, prefers that people stare.

Looks up, often, at the sky. At people, traffic, buildings. Watching. Gathering information, minute details. Eyes everywhere. An animal sense: know your jungle. Watch for the people who say they are here but who are really there. Inhale the scent that says one thing when words say another -- jungles are tricky that way. When you know the scent, no one is anonymous. No matter how many layers.

No one is missing.

12/24/95 10:50 am. The 11/20 tape is transcribed, and I have moved on to another client: nice, neutral dialogue about curricula.

When I wrote the above exercise, I was a faucet. Last night I wrote to M in my notes that the tapes have been resonating with my own internal processes.

I know what I need to do, and I am ready to do it, unpleasant as that is. The worst thing he can tell me to do is turn it off, i.e., stop the personal-angle notes. I need to ascertain on Thursday how much he wants to deal with, if this is to be a sharing, a co-counseling. Yesterday and for much of last night I was a mess.

But there are things I can start looking at -- not '77 but '76 -- that I couldn't touch before. The thing is, in order to do that I need a support. I think I have one, but I need to know for certain -- especially since I'm seeing areas where I can't tell the difference between projection and common ground. The 11/20 tape served as the catalyst to jump-start the new phase of an ongoing process.


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