I want to write about how I feel the tug of the other side, about how an awareness of not being, at least not in this form, sometimes makes my heart skip a beat. I wouldn’t call it fear, exactly, though maybe it’s fear’s distant cousin, or a half-brother. It’s a bit heartbreaky, the tug, and it reminds me of everything I love about being human, being in a body: “You mean I won’t get to feel the goosebumps of a kiss anymore?” it says, and, “you mean I won’t be able to feel the ocean’s tug in my chest anymore?” …
I flirted with death when I was young and very sad. But it was not my time and, really, I did not want to die. I just didn’t know how to live and I didn’t understand that it is only life that can teach you how… Funny that. But death knew better, and he just would not have me then. He handed me right back.
Life is a kind, if exigent, teacher. And maybe death is her biggest, grandest lesson of all… After all, we don’t know what comes after. Not really, not for all the guessing in the world. Sure, we can make claims and say we know. But can we really? And ironically, the louder I hear someone claim certainty, the less I believe them, even while I understand the wanting of certainty.
Sometimes there’s a sense of urgency to the tug, a touch of despair about not having done what needs doing, said what needs saying, given what only I could give… Not that I am special, but more that there will never be another constellation of thoughts and cells like this… (Doesn’t everyone have a something so theirs, something the opportunity for which will be gone once they’re gone?)
“Why this talk of death,” you ask, “why now?”
Oh, I don’t know, really. I have a birthday coming up this week, maybe it’s that. I am aware of no longer being young, even though I’m not yet old. I’m in the middle here, somewhere, yet feeling the pull of the later acts like I didn’t in my 20’s or 30’s… Really, I have no idea where I am on my lifeline —for all I know it could all end tomorrow— but I do know that death comes to mind every time I see or hear something beautiful. Like Leonard Cohen’s new album, “Old Ideas,” which sounds to me like the best stuff of the hymns I grew up on —harmony, melody, and soothing repetition— minus pulpit, pews and sermonizing.
Something wakes me in the middle of the night. I want you to listen, it says. I turn over, pretending I didn’t hear. I have better things to do, I think, like sleep, for one.
It, on the other hand, does not have better things to do! I want you to listen, it says again. I turn on my iPhone and do my restless checking thing. It doesn’t help.
I lie in the dark doing my best. I realize that it would have spoken to me during daylight hours, if it knew I’d listen, but the world is louder then and it’s harder to make out the sounds of silence. Plus, in spite of having no TV, in spite of watching no news (except fake comedy news that tells me all I need to know and makes me laugh) my days are too full of busy, of argument, of retorts, rebuttals, information and distraction. There is so much trying to talk people into or out of… everywhere I turn. So much advice-giving, so much advocacy for the devil… far too much advocacy for the devil. So much bullshit.
Shhhhh, it says, shhhhh… It’s a calming shhhh, not a shooshing shhhh.
I lie in the stillness that is Somerville, Massachusetts at 4 in the morning, grateful for my flannel sheets. It shows me how most minds —including, of course, mine— are made up and that minds that are made up can’t listen. It’s just not possible. It shows me how mostly we assume we know, and from that loud place we give advice and blah blah opinions. And that when we think we know, we notice so little, stuck as we are in broken-record ways of seeing and interpreting things.
It has me there. It knows that I love noticing things, that I get off on spying on the ordinary magic that is always everywhere.
I say, but what about my spinning? I can’t listen because there’s too much spinning and I don’t know how not to spin. By spinning I mean my endless distract-y, avoid-y habits, and anxious thoughts.
Ah my love, it says, spinning is just your way of trying to be someone else, someplace else, someway other.
Nuh-uh, I say, spinning is my way of getting some relief.
Ah, it says, how’s it working for you?
I sigh, tired. I was arguing again.
Shhhh, it says. It is the voice of kindness —there, there— and it knows I’m doing my best. I see how tired you are. I see how much you want to listen. I see you visiting The Pause every morning, and most nights before bed.
I say nothing. I feel the tugging on my chest again. My throat feels thick. I want to cry because I see and feel everything it is showing me, and I see how all of it —ALL!— is just all of us doing our best with what we know, with what we have, with where we are. And it all kind of breaks my heart.
Sometimes I look at people on the bus and imagine their thoughts. If all of our thoughts were one day to scroll across a billboard in the sky, we’d each panic thinking they were ours, our own, being made public… So similar, all of us. Solomon was right: nothing new under the sun. And yet:
Doesn’t every last one of us have our own particular taste and smell? Our particular and delightful turn of phrase? Aren’t we all so same, so different, so both?
All of that and more keeps tugging at me.
I turn toward it and whisper, not yet, please, not yet. I am speaking not so much about myself but about people I don’t want taken away. Leonard Cohen, for one. I have cried many a premature tear for the day he is no longer here.
(What can I say, I can be maudlin, OK? One day he was trending on twitter and my heart made what I thought was a full stop, but turned out to just be an end-of-paragraph return. He’d ‘only’ won a big prize, after all. Thank goodness and yay! But, oh my. The heart-stoppage.)
Maurice Sendak, for another. Mary Oliver, for sure. People, all of them, who don’t argue. People who say it like it is, no matter what anyone else says. People who show us their wrinkles, their hearts, their beautiful minds, without photoshop. Such courageous people, they. These are the people I gather round me when I am lonesome as hell for someone to listen in the middle of the night.
I touch people. Every day, I touch people and every day their bodies teach me to listen. I hear the beauty, the fragility, the finitude of life in our bodies. It moves me every time. I touch our scars. I touch the ways our way of holding our pain, our joy, our laughter, our sorrow has become particularized in our bodies. I touch where that pattern lives in someone’s shoulder. I touch pains in the neck and pains in the ass. I touch the knot that holds all the whys of how you can’t sleep at night. I touch what your body started flinching about so long ago. I touch what you say without a second thought and I touch what you don’t ever say but wish with all your heart you could. I listen with my hands.
Bodies don’t bullshit. They know they will end. They have no time to waste.
The other day a client who’s been coming to me every week for about a month told me that he’s been doing the stretches I showed him and that his shoulder and low back had been feeling much better. I nodded, I listened. But, he went on, there were still pains and aches that hadn’t gone away… I said yes. He asked why and what could he or I do about it… Good and obvious question, no?
I took a moment and then I told him that some things in the body aren’t about the bad mattress, or the wrong pillow, or the crappy desk chair. I told him that some aches in the shoulder couldn’t be stretched away even if we stretched our pecs in a door frame for hours… I don’t always go here with my clients, but I could tell he was with me, so I went on:
Our bodies have a way of expressing for us things that otherwise don’t get voice, things that have no other way of coming out.
Yes, things like how we were actually upset about that thing so and so said, even though we smiled and told ourselves it didn’t matter… Maybe our body is expressing that thing we want in our heart of hearts to do, or say, but tell ourselves we shouldn’t. Maybe our body is expressing the despair we don’t want to feel over ever righting that big regret… Maybe it’s about the way we swallow our words, our feelings, for fear of what people will think. Or maybe it’s about how we always joke and become witty when in our heart of hearts we know it makes for a wall between us and the world, the very same world we want to put our arms around… Maybe.
He got it, I could tell, and then he asked, in his slow and sweetly broken English, but couldn’t my body find nicer way of telling me those things?
I laughed. We both did. It was a knowing and rueful laugh.
Sometimes I want to stand in the middle of the road and let every single last piece of bullshit clothing fall away. To say: “This. Is Who. I am.” I want you to see. I don’t want to hide. And yet, I do. Not as much as in my 20’s when I flirted with death, but still.
It’s 4 in the morning. The world is quiet. And finally I am listening enough to hear. What’s been tugging wants a pen. I get up and find it one. My hand begins to move as if taking dictation. Something wants saying, something wants hearing. Hello, I’m listening.
Thank you, I hear it say, thank you.
It’s almost 6 now. Maybe I will sleep a bit more for having listened, and for having said things wanting saying… Nothing special kinds of things, as you can see, except that I wasn’t saying them and they were breaking my heart just a bit.
My neighbor’s kettle will soon whistle and she will soon clatter the pan that she makes her breakfast in. When I hear her, if I hear her around this time in the morning, it gives me odd comfort. I know a bit about her and hold it in a sweet place in my heart. If something happened to her, I’d care, and, for sure I’d miss the sound of her kettle when I wake early.
After all, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Mary Oliver said that bit of loveliness in her poem, The Summer Day. Sometimes I carry her words with me like a marble in my mouth.