Self-Pity and Resolve: Fighting for a Happy New Year

Real Life gets really real, the final part–I sure hope

I don’t know what I expected to find, the morning after the grayest day. It was still bitter cold but–typical Michigan, harsh just when it’s breathtakingly lovely–the sun was shining, on the snowy lake, the hills, the snow-covered trees, the newly-mounded dirt at the base of the hickory tree just inside the cemetery gate. Even though the roses were now frozen, ferns and lilies waving slightly in an arctic breeze, I thought I could still smell them in the air the way it smelled through the funeral.

I’m not at all superstitious about graves or earthly remains–and I’m still not, because apparently this morning wasn’t spiritual at all. God, give me this last minute of self-pity, here on the last day of the year, then I promise I’ll try to move on with life. I cried and cried finally–a good old-fashioned, wipe your red nose on your icy gloves kind of cry. I wasn’t crying for my parents or my sister-in-law or my little great-nephew Archie who won’t know the best uncle ever as he grows up. This was all about me. All the many ways I feel small right now.

Unattached. Lost.

The sun was shining and there were even birds singing and I did hear my snow-boots crunching on the ground, so the earth was definitely still turning, logic said it was, but I hardly felt like I was attached to it anymore. I don’t mean just light-headed or light and airy; I honestly stopped feeling like I belonged on the earth. What was I doing here? It feels like the whole world can see that I’m all alone: it feels like there’s a big sign around my neck telling the whole world I’m a lost little girl who doesn’t have a big brother. Any more. So what’s the point of me now?

Michael was there when I was born. He left home–to stay the summer with his grandparents, but when my sister was born he came back and decided to stay with me, because I cried so happily when he returned. He left home when he graduated to walk the length and breadth of the country, but he always came back. I was very sick on the couch one time he was away and woke up in the middle of the night and saw his silhouette in light from the dining room, and I was just as giddy as the toddler seeing him again. He watched over us all and waited patiently through three sisters and two nieces until finally after sixty years little Archie came along–but Michael was already sick, we just didn’t know it yet.

Avoiding pain as motivation

When we did find out his time was limited, about two months ago, I went into severe escapism mode. I bragged about learning to get up an hour early to write every single day at the coffee shop before work and most weekends. I’ve been more productive revising the novel in two months than I’ve been in two years. Only in retrospect do I see that that kind of intense focus is particularly effective for avoiding pain. When all is said and done, I know I should have spent more time with Michael. Time spent struggling not knowing what to say but spent with him all the same.

So after a frenzy of funeral preparation, now the friends and distant family have visited and gone and I woke up to the empty disbelief that it really was final. No, that’s another euphemism: I woke up no longer able to avoid the fact that it’s Too Late. So somehow I ended up back at the cemetery in the obscenely brutal cold.

Guilt motivates even more–till it paralyzes

I don’t know what I expected to find, but I told myself somewhat self-righteously I was only going there to “check things out” after the brief, frigid graveside service the day before. The big blue tent was gone now. Everyone was gone now, and it was just me and the palpable absence of my brother.

Still, it’s a pretty place, the kind of place nature-loving Michael liked to walk in; in the summer there will be squirrels and some rabbits and in the spring even the rare soft-shelled turtle up from the lake to lay eggs. They have long necks and run really fast: zip across the cemetery path, zip back to the safety of the water. I mean, I’ve been taking walks here all my life because it’s that much nicer and more peaceful than the city park next door.

Forever attached to the earth

I have five generations of family buried here–no, now it’s six. My dad went to try to buy a plot for Michael and found he inherited, like, a dozen, in the oldest family spot here by the gates, places now for me and my sisters and still some more.

Huh, I realized. I’m standing here bawling my eyes out on my own grave.

God, please let me get through this last minute of self-pity. It feels like I’m drowning in it but I know I have to crawl out. I don’t have any kids but surely the next generations need me. My cat, at least, needs me. I need to accomplish something in 2018. Even if it’s just putting my brother in the dedication of my first book.

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“The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; Be not discouraged – keep on – there are divine things, well envelop’d; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” –Walt Whitman

…from the obituary for my brother Michael. My first best friend and hero.

A Muse of Fiery Dragons

When it was just me and a tree, I knew it all

St. George and the Dragon Day – something I like to celebrate, as it reminds me of those far recesses of childhood when I began to learn the world was SO BIG, and even bigger when you thought about all history. And in my head I had such a sure, vivid, timeless yet evolving image of all the stages of history in all the places I knew of. What does an “absent-minded” daydreaming six year old who has never left Michigan know? A whole lot! Enough to fill a universe. That’s the nature of the brain.

I suppose these vast conceptions of places like medieval England or colonial America or Neanderthal Europe were informed by folk tale books my mom read, TV and school–but I’ve been around the world and dangerously over-educated in the 4+ decades since and these “forms” (in the Platonic sense) in my mind’s eye have not much changed. This feels very much like a collective unconscious. Somewhere there is and always will be an England of rolling green hills where a maid tends her sheep across the river from a village fair outside a Gothic cathedral, and archers roam the forest and knights in armor ride out from a castle with crenellated parapets. Somewhere there will be a dragon and a St. George to do battle with it.

What the other realm has to do with inspiration

These places are real in the way everything in a dream feels so much more present and tangible and real than being awake: in your dreams, the smallest thing can be infused with a sense of the greatest symbolism, and what happens next always has the feel of momentous inevitability. This is how good writing works: you set up a world of believable vastness and palpable intimacy, where events or imagery sustain multiple meanings, and the plot develops logically and naturally from the introductory matrix.

When I write I don’t feel like I’m creating a new place, rather, I’m trying to re-capture one that already exists–has always existed–in my mind, which is the same as to say it already exists in the “out-there” where all possible places and settings have always and will always exist. Inspiration is just getting to a point where I can remember it. I’m just tapping into something outside of myself. I’m being reminded by a “Muse”.

But the Muse is elusive! I can only actually write while I’m awake, with all the meaning-less distractions and inelegant minutiae of everyday life crowding in. How can I possible get past all that to a mental state where I can touch that other realm of inspiration? Most of the time it’s as hard as remembering your dreams. You forget just as soon as you remember a piece of one.

And what memory has to do with inspiration

My dad is nearly 82 years old. Since starting up the whole genealogy thing a few years back, I’ve made a point of asking questions about my parents’ childhoods, and I get very frustrated at how little he remembers. Is he holding back? Or can he honestly not remember a day out of his entire fourth grade, or one of the dresses his mom always wore? And yet, since I turned 50, a part of me has started to believe it. I’ve reached an age where I have to face the fact that maybe not remembering that certainty of childhood has less to do with simply not thinking about it lately and more to do with the fact that there are memories that may well be gone forever. You start to get pretty desperate to tap into that world-eternal you had all around you as a child.

I still play this one game sometimes while trying to fall asleep: I scrape and think really hard and try to come up with one early memory from childhood that I haven’t thought about almost since it happened. Maybe it will keep my brain and memory in shape. Maybe I’ll actually learn something about myself. It’s a game because I don’t always win; in fact, it’s quite rare that I un-earth a genuine long-buried gem and the corresponding feeling of supreme satisfaction. For just a moment, I know all the secrets of the universe yet again.

Is education inspiration?

I’ve spent a life voraciously chasing after that complete education, the level of knowing it seems like everyone else must have, a basic understanding of all history and myth, of geography, of the “greatest” writers and artists and musicians, the times of the greatest break-throughs for science and mathematics, how a cell works and how a galaxy is born. Reading every word Shakespeare ever wrote (happy birthday) and doing a dissertation on his histories. I think I always thought that’s how someone achieves enlightenment–er, peace of mind–er, being a real human being.

But apparently my Muse is the same she’s always been: someone who puts me in touch with a conception of the world I’ve always had. Or maybe I’ve just set up a false dichotomy: I suppose even as a child I had to overcome staggering inanity and mundanity. Probably trying to find school-clothes that weren’t laughable and doing homework that was a painful exercise in futility were just as frustrating to my higher self then as these stacks of unsorted receipts and boxes of unsifted cat litter are today. There were bullies then who teased me about my overbite and flood pants and my uncool mind-absences, and there are bullies today who torment me over my awkward bookishness and unfulfilled potential and my uncool absent-mindedness.

Daydreams and distractions, still

I think now that reaching my Muse is more of the same creative selective-attention I learned as a child. For sheer-survival I learned to tune out–as soon as they were gone–the unpleasantness of nose-bleeds on the school bus and that girl who always said out loud how messy my hair was or how I acted like a boy. In my head all that mattered were the woods I played in and the books I read. Today I sit in my condo and listen past the distant road traffic and screaming kids and that jack-ass running his leaf-blower at dinnertime and sometimes I really do manage to hear only the birds outside. I play with my cat and some string and sometimes I really do find myself as single-minded and in the moment as she is.

Perhaps it’s the pernicious TLE déja-vu seizures I have that have me obsessing on capturing something lost from childhood:  in the moment of the seizure it sure feels as powerfully atmospheric as a dream. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been around the world and still I’m right back where I started:  a daydreamer in a book under a tree, desperate to prove one way or another that what you all thought were “mind-absences” were, in all ways amazing and worthwhile, me being very much present someplace after all.

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