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.
I’ve been thinking more, lately, about history. About cosmic and cultural, political and personal history. About the way that people do and don’t keep records of any kind of history, how each documentarian shapes the way things are remembered or forgotten, and how each person on the receiving end of the documentation shapes it all further, given the multitudinous filters of experience, intelligence, and personality each brings to the process. School learning, book learning, deep research, and autodidactic learning all depend upon the vicissitudes of human understanding and communication. And a whole lot, also, on luck and succeeding history, since all of the learning can be lost or found many times over the decades and centuries.
My family recently unearthed the above little slip of paper that marked my maternal grandfather’s completion of his first machinist training. Gramps had immigrated to the States some years earlier in search of work, and had kept busy and alive in the piecemeal way that [willing, as opposed to indentured or enslaved] immigrants have done since time immemorial, bunking in cheap rented quarters with other young immigrant men, laboring long hours for little pay, and playing greenhorn pranks on each other in the few hours outside of work when they weren’t downing a hasty bite of food or sleeping exhaustedly. His machinist training eventually led to his working at General Motors for quite a long time, even serving on the team that built the first Duck prototypes for the army. And then his life took various turns, over the years, and I grew up knowing him as a skillful carpenter and homebuilder and the hobby-farmer tending beautiful produce gardens and a handful of Cheviot sheep.
But of course I knew very little of his life story. I did have the privilege of sitting and quizzing my grandpa over dinner more often than most, since I rented a bedroom from him and Granny for the three years I worked near their home in between my undergraduate and grad studies. So I heard some of the tales, like the one about his flatmates sending each newest member of the household to town to buy “ten cents worth of Piggly Wigglies,” a silly quest after a mythical grail that afforded the rest the cheap entertainment of watching from afar as their victim tried in his broken English to persuade shopkeepers to hand over something that didn’t exist even if his speech could be deciphered, and the store owners eventually sending the series of foreign-born youths off, each now smarting with the same outsider embarrassment they’d all experienced in their early days in the US. I heard, too, of that uncle of my grandpa’s who had tried to dissuade him from going to America, and if he did, to at least be as wary and canny as possible because “those Americans will sue you for anything.” This was, mind you, not in the modern day that we generally agree is such a ridiculously litigious one, but in 1929 or so. (Apparently some things haven’t changed very radically in this country.) Still, I know only scraps of Grandpa’s whole biography.
I can at least say with conviction that I come by my stubbornness honestly. Despite the family pleas and warnings, Elias Omli sailed willfully ahead, and lived most of the rest of his life in the US of A. In those early times, he must have struggled immensely, yet found fulfillment enough in the life he forged for himself and later, his family, that despite his longing for the old country and one brief but unsuccessful attempt to reintegrate with the family in Norway when my mother was very small, he lived and died an American. Between those atoms of information he shared with any of us his descendants about his childhood and youth in Norway and the rest of his existence in the US, there was a whole, complicated, adventure-filled, and ordinarily colorful life, very little of which anyone really knows, or could know.
That is how we all exist. Even the most documented, celebrated, and historically dissected characters and the events in which they take part in life or death cannot be fully known, let alone understood, by anyone but themselves. If I’m any example, I suspect even such self-knowledge is pretty shallow in the long run. Having written and shared over 1500 posts here in Bloglandia, where I immigrated from the semi-real-world over 4 years ago now, I may in some ways be better documented than a few other people, should anyone care to sift through all of my imagery and verbiage at any point, but even in this, I share what I choose to share, and only my point of view on it all is represented, so that skew is also bound to be imperfect, if not a little disingenuous.
Gramps’s story was unique, but not dissimilar from many others’ in history, whether they decamped to new homes and lives from their birthplaces or not, whether they had vocations that called them at an early age and flourished throughout their days or they followed more unpredictable routes. The fate of an individual is inevitably affected not only by his own choices and acts but by the natural and national events and changes that fall in his life’s path. The person who penned the Swedish grocery and supply list above, many years ago, did so as the manager of a remote coastal household for not only the family but probably also a handful of townsfolk who shared the responsibility for overseeing the safe arrival of boats and their occupants on that forbiddingly rocky shore. What this little slip of paper denotes is a glimpse into the everyday life of not just the one person who wrote it but of a small group of people whose names are no longer known and whose life stories probably exist, if at all, only in the bloodstreams of distant great-grandchildren, yet the quaint harbor town they once labored to keep in existence all those decades ago is today a thriving and colorful, lively place. New stories are born there all of the time, and I can attest that the dry goods and groceries now available there are, respectively, more plentiful than and as delicious as ever.
A recent reminder of that came into my view when my spouse and I spent a few days in Halifax. It is as beautiful a part of the continent as I’d always imagined, and yet like the rugged coast of that Swedish island it certainly presents difficulties to the ships that approach it today, and all the more must have challenged the lives, safety, and ingenuity of all comers in days long gone. I loved exploring as a tourist and seeing, especially, the natural beauties of the area with all of its geographical wonders, sea-borne marvels, and magnificent greenery, and also the wide variety of architectural styles that hint at the multicultural roots of the region. Not surprising that the shores are dotted with lighthouses large and small, as well as the houses of those who tended them.
When at the waterfront of the city proper, I admired the old lighthouse and the humble buildings near it on the island most visible from the piers. For a lighthouse location, which is by nature placed in a potentially volatile coastal setting, it looks sweetly bucolic, ideal, and peaceful. Indeed, it is nowadays a quiet and pretty place, a heritage site in mid-restoration for its intended future as an historical park. But that heritage is far from peaceful, let alone ideal; like many other islands in such prominent coastal positions, it has a long and storied past as a fort, a military encampment and, even darker, as a prison and internment camp.
Some of those imprisoned on that place now known as Georges Island, Nova Scotia, were among the estimated 1660 prisoners out of 11,500 local Acadians expelled from their homes and lands en masse by British forces during the 18th century imperialist battles between English and French forces over New World territories. Three quarters of the entire Acadian population were deported in those times and thousands died in raids, counterattacks, and battles; others died under torture, of drowning on the deportment ships, of disease, or of starvation. And Acadians were far from alone in being imprisoned or worse on that pretty-looking little island.
Their own comrades, the Mi’kmaq (and other aboriginal Atlantic inhabitants), with whom Acadians on their arrival as French colonists are said to have lived quite equably, suffered on the island along with numerous captured French sailors and soldiers and any number of other “enemies” of the British rule. Something far less benign than a lovely coastal outpost of protective presence came to exist on this sorrowful promontory at the edge of the proto-Canadian world.
Can I look at this island in ignorant imagination anymore as a picture of vintage calm? Of course not. But I can also guess that there are very few acres of earth anywhere that are not stained with ancient cruelty and the blood of untimely deaths, whether of the innocent or not. It’s easy to sit in judgement from my place of comfort and call the expulsion of the Acadians an attempt at genocide or ethnic cleansing. Certainly, records and recollections of the historians present offer ample reasons that I should think there were all kinds of wicked intentions at play, from land greed to hatred of unknown races, from religious and political imperialism to maneuvering for resources. There were clearly personal elements involved, and as in all wars, military actions that turned into personal vendettas, fights over disputed borders into plundering and petty theft. Just as, undoubtedly, the aboriginal Atlantic peoples must have initially feared, and perhaps fought, the Acadians, and the French and British spent great resources and innumerable lives on their distrust and fear of each other and of the inhabitants of their intended expansion zones.
But earlier centuries’ worldview was also vastly different from today’s, all around the globe. Today, we have knowledge of a much larger and more developed world, of the richness of other cultures, even of the possibility of peaceful coexistence, and we have no excuses for not trying in every imaginable way to resolve differences without being exclusionary or violent. But past times and people didn’t all have the advantage of our expanded view. Every cultural center or nation of significant size in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas has had its powers, each of them assuming a natural, if not divine, right of rule over all that they had not yet explored, by dint of their own isolated mastery. It’s not just that leaders, explorers, and conquerors themselves have seen it as their right, and often as benevolent duty, to claim ascendancy over whatever and (assuming they’ve managed to recognize indigenous residents as people) whomever they encounter, and to rule as they see fit. Those who write down history, or tell its tales, also continue to believe or disbelieve in ways that are unique to them, and the biases that sneak into our views are inextricably mixed into how we, and future generations, think about history.
What can I take away from these musings? Only the usual self-admonition that I look beyond what is visible. That I question and try to learn further, and not rush so quickly to the judgement that comes oh-so-naturally to me. That I ponder whether any slight thing that I do or say myself can perhaps help others, individually or globally, to remember the lessons of history, both bad and good, and to move forward away from our worst selves. We may remain undocumented in these attempts, as in so many other aspects of being small mortal beings, but I think that existence itself bears the marks of our passing as a document that will spell out the difference between annihilation and rehabilitation of our world.
Do you dare to think about your own death in reasonable, detached terms? Do you think that’s morbid and grotesque to even consider, or do you find it easy? If you find it easy to contemplate in the abstract, is it because you suffer from depression or are suicidal, or is it simply that you recognize living as an inherently terminal condition?
This is big stuff. Even the clinically depressed are sometimes able to recognize, on those tiny instants of light in the midst of the abysmal dark, that their death, no matter how insignificant and unworthy they may think themselves, will affect others. I know this from experience, and from lots of reading and conversation and observation. I know that even when I was at my lowest—thankfully, not as hideously low as that reached by many, as I know in retrospect—my rational moments told me that no matter how they felt about me, or even if they didn’t notice me at all, when I was alive, everyone who was peripheral to me in any way would have some tidying-up to do after my death. Physical, perhaps, for those to whom body removal and disposal fell, but whatever tiny tasks I was not present to perform anymore would either default to another’s To Do list or leave a gap, incomplete. I realized that I am the butterfly effect, in human form. You are. Every living, breathing being has a space in the universe, a purpose, and however unnoticed in life, has an impact both by living and by dying.
All the same, I feel especially fortunate that in my family, talk about death and dying were far from taboo. It wasn’t all that uncommon to find the dinner table talk veering in that direction, if somebody we knew was unwell or had just died. We didn’t need euphemisms and pussy-footing to protect us from the reality of death. It’s nothing more or less than the inevitable cessation of life, and if we can’t talk about that, we’re stuck dealing with all kinds of petty and logistical nonsense just to get through the process when we’d rather be spending time living and loving each other and getting through the complexities of the occasion with a modicum of grace and humanity.
So my family already knows that I would prefer they donate what they can of my organs or remains to someone who has a better chance of survival and health if I give it to them, or to scientists who can learn how to give future patients that better chance. In fact, the government know this: I’m on the organ-donor registry, should I die unexpectedly or with usable parts intact. My loved ones also know that I’d prefer a minimum of fuss disposing of whatever remains of my physical shell after that, the cheapest and quickest cremation and scattering of my ashes being my top choice. I figure that any Supreme Being capable of inventing the human creature from scratch can easily put me into another, newer shell if and when it’s my turn to exist in any other form, and as for the current body, it’s a good source of recyclable carbon and nutrients to replenish any part of the earth that enjoys a good, tasty meal of ashes, say, my long-loved flowers the irises.
Those close to me also know that I have far less interest in what they do to celebrate or mourn my passing than the still-living will. If the occasion of my death can be used as an excuse for a marvelous concert to raise awareness or funds or mere pleasure for the sake of a musical group, whether my spouse is still alive to conduct or attend such an event or not, that would be lovely. But hey, I’ll still be dead, so y’all can do whatever it is that makes sense to you and I promise I won’t roll in my grave or be a pesky poltergeist or complain in any other way. Still dead, if you didn’t catch my drift.
And that, in fact, is a beautiful thing, and a great comfort to me. I don’t look forward to the actual process of dying or the moment of my death. I’d happily live a long, long life in great health and an approximation of sanity that seems cheery enough to me, before dying for real. But once I do, I feel genuinely confident that none of this worldly stuff will matter to me in the slightest, so as much as I like to “plan” ahead to keep my survivors from any terribly fussy practical matters in the event, I’m not worried. Go ahead and dance on my grave, if there is one. Keep on living. Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. Really.
Under cedars, in the beeches
in the garden’s deepest reaches,
sing the crickets and the sparrows,
robins, and the draught that harrows
every hollow of the windy, wooded hill…
Where those sleepers are reclining,
and above their tombs, repining,
kneel the loves they left behind them,
who return here yet to find them
and commune again together, sweetly, still…
As the honeysuckle flowers
lull away the weary hours,
here all spirits, in communion
so with nature, find reunion
in the waning light of afternoons at ease…
With the daylight, sadness dimming
like this lake where swans go swimming
through the lilies as its silver
mirror dims, goes dark forever,