The Cultivation of Sadness

I’m thinking about your sadness. It’s so similar to mine. Erin Belieu calls this “your human disappointment,/ which you’ve raised like a baby/ in a black BabyBjorn,/ coaxing it into the best sadness.”

I think it’s more like a lawn: cultivated, watered, shorn. Green and healthy. Uniform. We put on our gloves and yank the weeds out by the roots, because the Lawn should only ever be one thing. We cultivate its beauty, its ordinariness, the fact that, at its best, it’s just like every other lawn. Every blade of grass the same size and color.

It’s predictable, resting beneath our feet. It grounds us. We forget about it.

Our sadness is a display. Its regular watering (with tears, of course) produces satisfactory results: a softening, a little growth. We feed it just enough. From the street, it gives depth to the property, a well-roundedness.

But the grass is not the ground; it’s a soft place for your feet to land so they don’t have to touch the dirt. The dirt, abundant and compact, supports the house.

The dirt is the vulnerability underneath the sadness. Soft, strong.

Ugly. It asks, “what has been given to you, and what have you earned? What have you really lost? Is it already broken?”

We lament the loss of things we never deserved. We are born into privilege and then bemoan its retreat. This is a hideous part of our sadness.

We fear the discomfort of the dirt, its rocks or shells or particles of bone. But we were born into discomfort, and we die there. “Just make sure she’s comfortable” is what they say about the already half-dead, in agony and riddled with tumors. In agony we learn to be born and to die, over and over. Discomfort is a prerequisite for growth, and a component of all fruitful work.

Underneath the self-serving sadness, there is more. It’s ripe, putrid, rotten stuff. We have to be curious about it:

It’s all the work we haven’t done.

It’s all the ugly parts of ourselves that we refuse to examine, because we’re too busy cultivating the lawn. Sadness is charming, like poetry or water taxis.

My sadness is perfect. It has nothing to do with anything. It’s a gift.

It’s for those of us lucky enough to avoid despair.

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Angry and bald

I rode the subway to work this morning, 13 stops. It’s Saturday. A man got on my car, screaming about how big his dick was. He kept saying “fuck all of you. My balls are king kong’s balls. I’ll kill every one of you. I’m going to fucking kill you.” At the next stop, I switched cars. At the next stop, so did he. He kept screaming. He kept threatening me and the other passengers with physical and sexual violence. I changed cars again. So did he. I ran multiple cars away. The train tried to leave without me. I jammed my arm in the door and waited seconds for the conductor to open the doors. I rode a few more stops without the man. When I got off at my stop, I looked behind me every five steps, hoping he wasn’t following me.

Part of being a woman is being threatened. We are not surprised by threat. I am not surprised when someone threatens to rape me in public, the same way I’m not surprised when I walk by a man in the street and he looks me up and down and imagines me naked, prone, at his mercy.

I dated older men when I was young. Pedophiles. I thought they liked me for my personality. Maybe that’s true; maybe the innocence everywhere was compelling. One was 45 to my 19. He told quoted Keats to me, “beauty is truth.” That meant “I only date models.” I was thin because I subsisted on Coors Light, cigarettes, and buttered bagels. I was a nervous wreck, a full-blown alcoholic, a timid, natty animal, thirsty for anything. He tried to convince me to quit my retail job where I made $9.25 an hour and become a cocktail waitress at a club in the meatpacking district. He brought me to an expensive restaurant with another friend, a short Indian man who owned an airline, a millionaire. He looked at me skeptically when I inhaled the entire bread basket. I was hungry, and he wasn’t used to seeing women eat.

This is the year for women and feminism. It’s really easy to buy a T shirt now, announcing your activism. We elected a rapist to the presidency of the United States.

I’ve been hiding from news and social media for a year. The daily anxieties are crippling. A woman is raped every 4 or 5 seconds. The fact of Harvey Weinstein. The fact of Bill Cosby. Matt Damon opening his mouth.

Opening Instagram is a bitter pill. Women with 40,000 followers hocking diet shakes for flat bellies. People curating their lives with zeal and vigor. Impossibly happy, cooking things from scratch, going on vacation, loving their husbands or boyfriends without resentment. Women getting pregnant. Kardashians. Artists more successful than you. Everyone is doing so well. Otherwise it’s something about wine, which is called “mommy juice.” Another hilarious take on the daily urgency for global novocaine.

I heard a man tell a rape joke in an alcoholic recovery meeting once. I heard another white man talk about how, at his lowest moment, he was indistinguishable from a black man. There is no such thing as a safe space.

We are all implicit in the American Disaster. The idea that this country was built on the premise of freedom is a decrepit, insulting lie. It was built on the oppression, slaughter and rape of anyone who was not white or, to a lesser degree, male.

We congratulated ourselves when we elected Obama. Then we chose Donald Trump over a woman. My Apple news app shifts from Trump’s latest tweet, the threat of impending nuclear war, to a tantalizing teaser of a headline- do I want to know how Chrissy Teigen looks, newly pregnant AND in a bikini? This is our world. We all might burn to hell today, Dante’s blazing inferno, but Donald has a longer, fatter dick than Kim Jong-un, which could better satisfy a woman. And just in case today is not the day an atom bomb floats like a feather into the heart of Times Square, try to make more recipes your husband enjoys. Try not to get fat while you’re pregnant.

The guy on the train this morning won’t stop me from taking the train again tomorrow. I will get up and go to work. I’ll try not to think about the man who showed me his gun five years ago, or the one who, twenty years ago, showed me his Donald Trump.

I shaved my head when I got home tonight. My husband took a picture and said, “you look angry.”

I am angry. Angry and bald.

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The honey heavy dew of slumber

For Cathy

I went to a meeting this morning, and because I was told to do this when I woke up at 29 years old suddenly sober, naked and terrified, I shared: I am in pain.

As it were, I’m not the only one. 

Living a sober life can be like sinking to the bottom of the ocean, a black, unknowable, blind pit, in a one-woman submarine, only there’s no release valve for the air pressure, so you go up and down in the water, you can’t see a thing besides what the dinky lamp attached to your craft shoots out, miserable and too small a light, and the pressure just builds. You want to open a window but it’d kill you. Gin is the window. 

So what you’re supposed to do is get on your knees and say, please god release this pressure so I can go help the next one-woman submarine who looks like she’s 5 minutes away from drinking the window. Or you meditate and learn to quietly tolerate the sensation of drowning. Lighten up, as they say.

And if you learn to stop obsessing over the fact that you’re alone in a tiny tin can in huge, unknowable, dark ocean, if you can shut up for long enough about how we’re all dying down here, maybe you notice a fish. Maybe it’s an ugly fish, and you curse at it’s weird lips like two stacked lumbar support pillows and it’s eyes which, due to bad placement (who invented these things?) can only see you with one eye at a time. Fuckface. It swims away and now there’s nothing but plankton, little flakes of white cascading in whirls and whooshes, directed by some kind of physics, I’m sure.

Another fish, less beautiful than the first.

And then you think, fuck, how can you guys stand it down here? This is terrible. It’s dark, it’s wet, it’s boring. The pressure is killing me. An ear pops.

More fish. A school! Numerous slimy silver bullets. Man, what I wouldn’t do for a Coors Light.

The way the light catches them, the little flares like stars on a space highway, it’s not bad. Groovy sci-fi stuff. A moment of grace punctures how sorry your feel for yourself, because suddenly: you’re there, you’re noticing what’s right in front of you, some mundane thing, numerous and circular and bigger than you. 

So you stare out your window and watch them move. After a minute they swim away again, and everything goes dark outside your one woman submarine. For this instant, you’re not so angry. The pain dissolves. Like everything else, it’s fleeting.

You glance down and notice a button. It says SURFACE.

It was always right there in front of you. 

You press it. Up you float.

You remember that you know how to swim. You move towards the light. 

There’s a prayer: It is in self-forgetting that one finds. You die all day to understand what it is to be alive. 

Lucky for us, nothing is solid. Not death, life, feeling, memory, truth, gin, fish, ocean, air. 

For my dear friend who is dying: thank you for showing me the SURFACE. Thank you for helping me find the light.

Tooth

I have to remind myself that there are days when I get up in the morning and do all my little sequential actions: look at my phone, stand up, piss, make tea, get dressed, brush my teeth, put my hair in a ponytail, leave the house, say something at work that is agreeable, make a funny joke, perform a kind gesture, do the dishes. There are days when my kid is kind to me, when my husband is in a good mood and by some rare celestial alignment so am I.

What happened today is that I’ve been holding it together for 3 months.

It was a hard day at work, but I won’t bore you with the movements of this particular concerto. It’s pathetic crescendo was picking Lu up from daycare and being head-butted so hard my teeth clicked together, fracturing a lower front tooth. While we waiting for a bus that never came, she slapped me in the face. I hailed a cab.

I cried silently in the back of a cab while she looked at my phone, pushed my face away when I put it close to hers and told her I loved her. The driver looked at me with tenderness and helped us out of the car. I tugged Lucy’s arm when she refused to leave the car and he said to me, “don’t pull her, she will come.” He told me he had four kids. Kids are hard.

I came home with all the stuff and the kid on my hip and fulfilled the twin requirements of TV and graham crackers. I started making dinner. Take out the ingredients. Wash them. Cut them. Cook them. When Kyle walked in the door, I started sobbing so hard I choked. Loud, violent, hideous crying. The kind of crying that leaves a snot stain on the Ikea sectional like a dear john letter a week later.

Today was just another day. Spectacular in no way, except that 120 before it happened, and those were all hard, too.

How the fuck do we all do this? How do we go to work and raise kids and partners and behave politely in public and shave our legs and do laundry and wash the dirt off vegetables and eat them?

I’m lying in bed now. Kyle is taming the screaming in the next room, while I flick my tongue back and forth over the snag where a cube of tooth used to fit. I must’ve swallowed it.

Here is my mantra:

I can get up tomorrow and one thing at a time do a thousand things in a row. I know I can; I’ve proven this. The monotony will always be sliced through with solace, a gentle surprise. I hope my tooth doesn’t split. I hope I can reach down to some human cavern, untouched even by yoga or Pema Chödron or whatever kind of enlightenment I’ve ordered off Amazon Prime, and scoop out another modicum of patience I had no idea was inside me. Namaste, etc.

The thing about holding it all together is that eventually you have to let it go.

Bless This Mess

There’s something wrong with me. Lungs on fire, acid stomach, twelves hours of sharp, jutting pains through my midsection that came and went. I went to the doctor after a quarter of a yogurt made my esophagus light up like a Duraflame. He called for a nurse to be present while he dug his fingers into my midsection: Where does it hurt you, baby?

Maybe an ulcer. I bought $80 worth of prescription drugs at Walgreens on 23rd street and went back to work.

My colleagues asked me how it went. Their eyes clapped shut and opened wide in disbelief when I told them what it might be. How old are you? None of them have children.

The days are so long now. I used to have time to breathe. I remember when weekends were for recovery, when rest was possible, when sleep was more than the gulp of air needed to dive back underwater for another 15 hours. When I find little pockets of space now, a few minutes on the train where I’m not answering emails, half an hour after my daughter finally falls asleep before my face hits the side of the pillow with a splat, I am numb. I play Candy Crush. I have nothing left.

Feeling Things is not my forte. Feelings are messy, uncooked. I’m a planner, an organizer, a doer. I will acknowledge them only when they press me, or are not my fault. They get hurt and I will ask for your repentance. There now, it’s been handled. Keep swallowing.

Feelings have a way of rising up. They do not appreciate being ignored. I drank them down. When that stopped working, I spent hundreds of hours stroking and fondling them in recovery. I opened the door and let them in. I decided we could all live in this body. They settled in, despite hating the furniture.

Now, I’m a mother. There isn’t time.

I leave for work at the crack of dawn, before the sun or my daughter is awake. I walk the dog in the pitch dark freezing night. I pick his steaming shit up with a black plastic bag and feel it warm my hand. I sit on the commuter train with business men in suits with mouths like parentheses who skim quickly through the Wall Street Journal so they can watch Family Guy on their iPads. They wear wedding rings and don’t smell like anything.

At work, I think about cancer. One guy has six kinds of cancer and half an arm. He is not old. My heart breaks open. My brain says, “You are going to die, too.”

There is nothing I want to do more than this work. To keep the anxiety at bay, I walk to the water machine and push the button. Cucumber seltzer. It’s a good prize.

I leave a meeting early and hustle to daycare to pick up Lucy. She doesn’t want to leave. I bribe her into the car with a two-pack of Saltines. At home, she throws a tantrum when I put her down, pick her up, give her milk in the wrong plastic cup. I offer TV and she is happy. She doesn’t want dinner. I microwave something. I eat it out of the plastic tub on the couch while Lucy sits engrossed in cartoon mermen. I love her so much in this moment, where she is happy and my attention is not required.

I try to read her books but she’s impatient. We look for everything in her room that’s yellow. She wants banana, a yogurt, sweet things. She refuses pajamas. She smells like pee. I bribe her to change her diaper. Once the lights are out, she clings to me with force, won’t let me put her down. I sing Baby Beluga over and over again in the dark. When she’s almost asleep, she shoots up, realizing how I’ve tricked her eyelids into heaviness. She shouts for Dada, who is more fun. I leave, and they throw all the monsters out of the bed.

My bedtime routine is 5 things, and I hate them. I do them anyway, and crawl into bed. I play more Candy Crush. I look at Instagram. Women are wearing bikinis and cooking beef short ribs from scratch. I compare myself to them. I click the lamp to black and let a podcast lull me to sleep, filling my brain with someone else’s story.

I take it back. I feel constantly. I feel guilt and shame about not spending time with my kid, and then guilt and shame about being so tired that when I do see her, I want to check out. I am sleepwalking through a room full of people shouting, “Wake up! You asked for this!”

I did. I want all of these things. I love Lucy, how she puts all of the monkey things together in one pile, how she grits her teeth for the camera, thinking that’s what a smile is. I love my job more than any work I’ve ever done before. I love the man with 6 types of cancer and half an arm and I want his suffering to mean something in the larger context of research and fighting and fixing and curing.

Here it is, everything you asked for. Job, daughter, husband, house. Meaning.

I love it. Please don’t take it away. Just tell me: how do I not self-destruct?

I took the day off today, my first day off. I didn’t need to. I feel okay. I am not shitting blood.

I’m reading. I’m lying in bed in a sweatsuit listening to Arvo Part with my dumb cats, feeling stuff. I’m moisturizing. I’m waiting for this aromatherapy diffuser I ordered to be delivered from Amazon. I haven’t decided yet which smell to experience first.

I think they call this a mental health day.

Tomorrow I’ll commute into the city for an endoscopy. An invasive medical cherry on the proverbial cupcake. As a former drunk, I am not not looking forward to the procedure’s required black-out. Sounds like rest, to me.

Bless this mess. Good things are rarely easy.

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via @taprootdoula