One of my greatest worries is, and always has been, the fear of being misunderstood. Not in the sense of “poor me, I’m an unappreciated genius,” but as in dreading that anyone would think I was saying a bad or mean or insensitive thing when I think I’m doing quite the opposite. This is not an unfounded or inexperienced kind of fear, either. For all that I am so verbal-cum-verbose and try hard to craft my thoughts into words fittingly, I find that the things that matter most to me, especially in moments of intense feeling, become far more difficult to express exactly as I’d wish, and I grow either dumb with the weight of my fine intentions or simply scrambled in what I blurt out in the moment.
Even when I believe I’m at my most cogent and persuasive, I often find I’ve stepped firmly on the tender feelings of those whom I would least wish to offend, and while I am heartily sorry for that and try to be honestly mild and penitent in my responses if they tell me I’ve put my foot wrong, I can’t always undo the hard feelings I’ve inadvertently engendered. Sometimes it’s because I’m left in the dark: even those with whom we’re close can be too wounded or unsure of how to respond and will never tell us we’ve struck a nerve; they might go off silently, nursing their hurt without letting us make amends. Some, too, will bite back at what they consider an affront, but then disappear in a dust-cloud of hasty retreat before I can rephrase to say what I had really meant, apologize, or, in the rare cases when we cannot see eye to eye no matter what, say with due respect that I don’t harbor any ill-will but beg to differ. That, at least, assumes neither of us is a villain or an ignoramus but that our sincere efforts have led us to quite different conclusions. Silence cannot explain, clarify, forgive, or ask for forgiveness, and it certainly cannot open the ears that have been stopped up by anyone’s fixed assumption of my guilt.
And most of all, it can’t allow me to learn from my mistakes, when I fail to convey what I’ve tried so hard to convey. That’s what keeps me awake too late and too long, fussing over the wording of what should, perhaps, have been an easily stated idea or even a passing thought, because I convinced myself, whether through experience or through overwrought and paranoid worrying, it was going to give somebody—anybody—the wrong idea about me.
And there is where I finally spot the heart of the real problem: it’s not all about me, much as I josh about being the center of the universe or pretend that I’m so important. Every other person in the world will never be on the same wavelength I am, not in the things we believe, in the ways we think about them, or perhaps especially, in the ways we express them—or try to do it. And every other person in the world is not going to agree that what I think respectful or complimentary seems that way to them. To expect that kind of universal acceptance is folly; to wish for it is vain; to stay up past my bedtime trying to achieve it is merely asking for trouble.
Surrendering to the plain fact that my imperfection is bound to meet up with others’ occasional misapprehension of my meaning is not total capitulation. But as it might mean I get a better night’s sleep, I do think it worth a try.
Solitude is not always lonesome; it can be a deeply joyful place of peace and calm. It can be an inward-looking, melancholic sweetness tinged with nostalgia or the cosmic silence in which every breath becomes a prayer. To be alone in the worldly sense never denies the possibility of a welcome, comforting Other presence, or the awesome sweep of knowing that reassures, despite all challenges, that one has a place in the universe, however small.
Formless in the mist, obliterated by dark and storm, or shut from sight by suffering or fear, the things that ordinarily create a sense of normalcy or rootedness may not be gone, but in the state of being all alone, anyone can become convinced she is alone, and that solitude is a burden or a punishment. But in the stillness, too, is the possibility of deeper thought, of slipping into a state where the good and the powerful and the blessed things that fill the spirit—when there are fewer distractions of person-place-or-thing to prevent it—well up and are renewed.
The marvels and beauties of the natural world are inevitably balanced by equally intense harshness: death weighs against life, grief against joy, and unease against sanguinity. Angst steals peace. And life continues for all of those who grieve the loss of the dead and dying. We mourn, and we weep rivers of tears.
What do animals do? They suffer all of the losses that humans do, but are denied the relief, the respite of tears. Driving a country roadside at dusk, my husband and I spotted a fox pacing the length of a meadow, back and forth, back and forth, nose in the grasses, intent. A quarter-mile up the road, we saw on the other side a small heap of red-brown fur. It was very small. It was very still. The mother fox was searching for her kit, and when she eventually found it, her hunt would end sorrowfully. We stayed quiet in sadness for her.
What would she do? Sit silent watch? Yip, bark, whine? Surely, after a time, she would return to her den, her other kits; would they, too, feel the loss? It was clear from her search that the mother fox would go to great lengths to protect or find her young, and I can only imagine, from my perspective, that it would be with whatever is the fox’s form of emotion that she would seek, find, and suffer the death of her young. But she would have no tears for it. As much as I dread the causes of them, I am grateful for tears.
For, like the rising flood behind a dam, they signal an immense pressure and an enormity of feeling pent up inside us and growing in heaviness and strength until they are released. When we humans ‘let go’ of a dead loved one or comrade, it is not that we forget or no longer care; it’s that we are able to somehow vent the pressure of the intense, unbearable sorrow and suffering felt at the immediate loss. Tears are a benison in this, the floodgate opened in the bursting dam to permit some physical release of that intensity of sorrow, letting it abate enough to become manageable once more. When I weep, whether for an unknown fox’s kit or for my own lost loves, the river of my tears carries away with it some of my misery and leaves behind a kind of quiet that is washed of grief and open for peace.
From the settling of the evening to the whispering of dawn
Lies a tenebrously winding way that wanders bleakly on…
What’s ahead is hid in veiling; what has been, lost in a mist,
And with strength and spirits failing goes the wayfarer, who kissed
Fond farewell to all familiars, bade goodbye to every known,
And set off to see tomorrow; now it seems all hope is flown.
But a flicker in the darkness sparks the vision of a wing,
And the silence now is shattered as a voice begins to sing!
Glorious, the song is lifted in its swelling, sweet refrains,
And the wayfarer is gifted with new courage in his veins.
What a loveliness is in it when such music comes along
To illumine every minute; what great powers in a song!
When the journey seems unending and the dark rules every vale,
For whoever needs the tending, let me be
If beauty dwells inside the mortal heart
and soul, what dark impediment can be
so strong that we’d forget, incessantly,
to let it rule and be the greater part?
Have bitterness and poverty of care
for good and kindly things the weight and sway
to force the love of beauty out, away,
and leave a wound of emptiness in there?
What fault in us could any cause invent
to trade our greatest gift for grief or hate—
can joy revive, or is it left too late
that we grow wiser, love, create—relent?
Let us let go of emptiness, grow whole
Yesterday I was ruminating on the foolishness of leaving my mental-vacation hours or days too often unused and under-appreciated. A good night’s sleep is a grand thing and can help stave off the need for more frequent visits to my Happy Place, my Playland, my refuge when I am stuck in place either metaphorically or literally, but it’s not a complete negation of the need. And, unlike many people, I do have such options. I am not so trapped in my suffering, whether virtual or actual, that I can’t dip my toe into the pool of soothing quiet and beauty at least in a pause for meditation once in a while.
What of you who have no such safety zone?
This is no casual question; it’s a matter of sanity and survival, for many. And I am not the person who can cure the disease once and for all. Tragedy can befall anyone; accident, ill-health, loneliness, financial ruin, crime, natural disaster—they’re lurking around ever little corner of life, and some people’s life sojourns seem to take them along the cruelest, most persistently terrible paths imaginable, and I can do nothing whatsoever to stop it. I cannot take away pain, heal wounds of the flesh or the spirit, stop runaway trains, or end wars.
What I can do is small. It’s quiet, it’s incremental, and it comes with no guarantees. I call it, simply, Love. But it can take so many forms, some of them quite unattached to any visible action. It is the true defining factor, for me, of my own versions of a Happy Place, no matter what its current address on earth or in my mind might be. Love, in the form of rest, calm, peace; of hope and anticipation. Of cheery reminiscences and optimistic plans and present contentment.
It’s love in the form of a well-loved song drifting in my inner ear, in the voice of my beloved, on the strings of a celestially fine orchestra, or with the irresistibly danceable beat of the most fabulous band. It’s a violet-scented, cooling breeze in a mossy glade right in the midst of the hottest, sultriest summer ever, or a cup of steaming soup to warm stomach, hands, and mood when I’ve been knocked down by a brutish winter cold. It’s a place where all of my most adored friends and loved ones are gathered around me in a welcome-home hug-fest after a tiring day or week or year—or a candlelit reading chair in an upper room of a place far out in the countryside where nobody can be seen or heard for miles, where I sit and repair my frazzled nerves one poem at a time, uninterrupted.
And for you, you friends of mine who haven’t access to these riches yourselves, I can only give you this: my promise. I promise you that if you will try to build your own place of refuge in your heart, really go deep within yourself and think hard on all of the beauties that you crave most and imagine yourself immersed in them for just a moment, and then for a moment more, I will be here waiting to greet you when you return. With a silent look of recognition that says, Yes, I will be your friend, and I will meet you here again whenever you’re ready. Or with the biggest hug imaginable, if that’s your style. Or with a hot cuppa tea or a cold glass of water and a time sitting together in a peaceful corner while you tell me your story. All of this, in cyberspace, shared because we will it, we imagine it, we mean it.
If you feel like crying, imagine my hand reaching out just as yours does, to wipe the tears off your cheek, and perhaps you will do so yourself with a little more patience and kind detachment that says, Yes, you will be okay. This may not pass, but you will find your way to exist in and through it. Hey, if you need a good rant-and-scream session, I won’t be put out by the noise or cussing when you find a spot safely out of others’ earshot and shout at me until you’re exhausted. I’ll shoulder it from here as best I can, if you promise to let go of it by the end. When you’ve been carrying your burdens for too long—carrying the whole world’s burdens, it seems, forever—it’s okay to say No, to Stop, to grieve over the stress and strain of it all, and to lay those heavy weights down and just let them be. Let yourself be. Know that the world won’t end if you don’t take care of everyone and everything else all of the time, and if it does, it won’t be your problem anymore, either! I understand.
If you need a good laugh, let out a gigantic chortle or just go ahead giggle yourself silly, all the while hearing me joining in on the joke, even if I don’t speak your language, because the language of laughter is universal. Sing softly or at the top of your lungs and I will harmonize perfectly with you, because out here in the ether it doesn’t matter if either of us can carry a tune in real life; in the space we occupy with our hearts, we are perfect singers and know every word of every song ever written.
If what you need is the sleep that eludes you perpetually because of work or pain or fear, take rest in closed eyes and a meditative, purposeful letting-go of all that you cannot solve, fix, or understand as you’d like, if only for a thousandth of a second, and when it has given you that increment of relief, go back for seconds. And thirds. Someday you may sleep again. Spend the wakeful hours until then building your dream palace or hideaway inside your quieted mind, room by room, foundation to roof, and all of its gardens perfectly tended by invisible angelic beings who plant and shape everything you love best into a picture-perfect park for your delectation alone. May you find sweetness and happiness there enough to carry you to and through all that your life brings. And I will wait for you here, be here when you come for respite again, because you matter.