I know that the deepest part of the ocean is the Marianas trench. I learned from a brilliant scientist who taught a class called Emergence of Life that water in the takes up between 50-70% of a human body.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve spent time submerged in the liquidy depths of me. While out in the world, doing the average activities that people do, I know I appear to be just like anyone else. I pass for normal. But I don’t really think I am and I never have. While lots of people seem just fine skimming along on the surface of daily life, I was always digging and probing and pondering. I rarely had a conversation with anyone that I didn’t rerun in my head, dissecting it, trying to figure out what else was there that didn’t show up on the first cursory pass. I always thought there was something else below the surface. Additionally I generally seemed to remember a lot more than other people. For example, I’d remember an incident or a series of them which I’d try to recall with someone. I received a lot of blank looks and comments stating that they had no idea what I was talking about. I realized that while it’s impossible to access all of our memories, some people actually do what I call “papering over” the things they’d prefer to forget.
While I was growing up I learned that my constant analyzing and revisiting certain topics was not popular with my family and friends. I heard “let it go,” plenty of times. But I didn’t want to and really couldn’t, until I’d exhausted every single possible interpretation of the smallest event to the largest, I couldn’t be satisfied. I think most people just wanted me to shut my mouth. That’s still true today. When I was young and sensed that I’d pushed the limits of patience with people, I’d back away from what I really wanted to do with them. It felt like dancing without a partner. I made people impatient. Always talking too much, digging too much and not leaving well enough alone. I got it then and I get it now. I don’t know if I was born this way or if I developed this trait to try protecting myself from all the uncertainties and fearful events in my childhood. At this point it doesn’t matter. I wish people were more understanding and patient with me.
From my standpoint I think patience is an underrated quality. For the most part, I don’t think people are patient enough. And as our culture becomes more of a pressure cooker, I don’t expect that to improve. Long ago, to help myself survive the rejection of my individual style. I’d turn inward. Withdrawal. I could seem present in a moment but I was actually away, submerged in myself. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of me. I can swim around my interior for long periods of time, trying to get to some point in my self-discovery that feels complete. I have an anecdote about that. I was mentioning a story to my son the other day and he said, “I know, I know, I’ve heard this a thousand times.” That might be right. But the story was a seminal moment for me, the moment when I found Michael, my best friend and the only person I knew who was willing to go with me deep under, even when it drove him crazy and when he wished I could just be, instead of working everything to the bone. It was the morning after we first met at a wedding and had spent the entire night before, hanging out together and feeling what for me is still hard to describe, an electrifying fitting together that was outside my previous experience. There was nothing cerebral about it. This was a strange sensory phenomenon that we both recognized and were eager to keep. I was leaving for Chicago the next day and we went to the home of my ride where a number of mutual friends were gathered. There were people struggling emotionally with their relationships, including Michael’s girlfriend who wasn’t thrilled by his lack of attention to her the evening before. Always a helper, I plunged into all the dynamics around me, trying to smooth things over and make some sort of peace that jangly morning. Michael sat silent, stonily staring straight ahead and after awhile, I realized I was getting nowhere with anyone. So I announced my apparent failure and said, “now I’m going to withdraw.” That drew Michael’s only response, one word – “don’t.”
That was a stunner that changed my life. When I returned from my trip home, I found Michael and asked him to come to my house so that we could continue to build whatever this thing was between us. After some months of deepening our friendship, I realized that I’d found my spot, my safe place, my best friend, my life partner. And luckily for me, he felt the same way. I was twenty years old. During our forty five years together, we had our issues like everyone else. But in the worst of times, our powerful friendship and the way we fit together carried us through everything. When he died, I knew that kind of steady backup and trust through anything was over for me. A part of me has been deeply immersed in myself with the years of our bond still helping me navigate my new daily life. But I’ve recognized that his steady presence in my life lent me the ability to be patient and understanding out there in the big world. After all the juggling of my younger days, trying to negotiate the relationships of people around me, I no longer have the impetus to absorb the parts of others that don’t satisfy who I am and how I feel. I am a different version of myself.
I am more than ever likely to withdraw now to my go-to place, internal pool that existed before Michael, that was still in me when he was here, and that is now where I feel my only true fit. He was always sensitive to my departures whereas others had no clue that I was actually totally detached and absent from whatever was happening in front of me. Much of my external behavior is performance. I am lurking below the surface because I truly don’t believe that most people want to be a part of me in the ways that work best for me. They like my parts that work best for them. Some think that having family and good friends is enough to breach the gap I created to process hard times long ago. My experience tells me otherwise. So I’m trying to find ways to survive this life with myself as my only anchor. I still have the strength of what existed in that magical way between Michael and me. I have skills. I’m strong. But I’m tired too. And holding on to what was isn’t an easy thing to do every day. I’m thinking about what I’ve taught myself to try to stay balanced while struggling.
I remember the day of my dad’s funeral. A September morning 30 years ago, cool and sunny. I was driving by Mt. Hope cemetery to the bakery to pick up cakes and pastries that family and friends would share at my mom’s place after a graveside service. As I drove along, feeling surreal, I found myself thinking what I’d thought so many times before and so many times since. Out there in the world, while I’m engulfed in grief or whatever other feelings of the moment, people are running. They’re playing sports or going for walks. They’re sleeping, making love, birthing babies, dying, crying, working, hiding and virtually any other verb you may want to insert here. Living their lives, dying their deaths, feeling their feels. You have no idea what those outside appearances are concealing. Sometimes they don’t know either. All over the world, life and death go on, and no matter how important your own particular event feels, there is always someone else’s that’s worse. That’s one of my most successful go-to strategies for coping with life, realistic thinking. Sometimes I can make a small event feel like it may have long-range positive consequences to help myself cope with staying balanced.
I was working out in my garden in late August. School was back in session and my house is on a pathway home for lots of kids who come rushing by at the end of their day. Two middle school-aged boys were riding their bikes down the street when the smaller one of the two screeched on his brakes and careened over to the sidewalk in front of my house yelling, “dude, you have to see this giant flower!” He’d spied one of my massive hydrangeas and was knocked out by it. I smiled and said, “pretty cool, right? I think you guys are very special for paying attention to nature. Lots of kids wouldn’t have noticed.” They smiled and rode away. I saw them in a different place about two weeks later and recognized them. I said, “hey, aren’t you those smart guys who stopped to look at my garden?” They looked surprised but pleased. Yesterday, I was out again and they were going by the house, dressed in pajamas for what I surmised was a special day at school. I hadn’t noticed them but the small one said hi and waved as he went by. I hope what I said to them and my presence during their time going up and back to school will stick with them, both in regard to the nature stuff and in the fact that an old lady can be someone worth engaging. I draw energy from stuff like that.
As my dive goes further, I find I’m trying to work things out in my dreams. I don’t know a lot about how the subconscious functions but in recent days I’ve dreamed that Michael was just outside, mowing the lawn. Then I dreamed that though I knew he was dead, I also knew part of him was alive and living with another family. So I went to retrieve him. As I approached where he lived, he appeared, looking wonderful and accompanied by our beloved collie Flash who looked like he did at six months old. That dream woke me from the sheer joy of it. I also dreamed of my dear friend Julie who’s in hospice now. I had driven back to her home for a second visit and she answered the door looking healthy, feeling stronger, and again I felt relief and delight. My sleeping mind is swimming with with these images which are wishes and small comforts compared to reality. I don’t pretend to get it but the days following these nighttime interludes start better than the ones that have no evening respite from reality. And then there are my daydreams usually brought on my music or activities that remind me of old times or a surprise photo that can elicit powerful surges of desire and ache.
While preparing a sizable family meal which I’d done so often in the past, my day was infused with essence of Michael, to the point when I stopped to write him this letter:
I’ve spent the day chopping and mixing and cooking all the food that goes along with preparing for company and a festive holiday meal. So that means you are huge in both your absence and your presence. I wish I could talk to you about what this feels like and have you answer me in real time. Maybe you are. The other day I realized that I hadn’t seen monarchs in a few days so I made a note for my records that they’d departed for the year. When I peeked out into the back yard this morning, the white butterfly bush was alive with them in addition to the painted ladies and the sulphurs that are still hanging around. That bush is smack in the middle of what was your tomato garden and I’m not kidding, that shrub is massive and still producing new blooms that I’ve coaxed along by diligent deadheading. But the ground is full of your sweat and love and I don’t give a flying fuck about how mystical and bizarre it all seems – I know you’re in there. One day we both will be because when I finally become ash and am rejoined with yours I want the kids to dump at least part of us there. Part amongst my flowers too and the rest? Apparently we’ll become some piece of glass art, showing up as silvery streaks in the middle of our colors which you know will be red and black. Maybe a little green for depth but definitely our political colors. In any case, when the monarchs were there this morning, was I wrong to feel you’d sent a few back my way? But no more. Those guys need to get out of Dodge because it’s getting chilly. Thanks, though. So back to the kitchen. It’s about a thousand degrees in there and I’m at the sink, cleaning carrots and you come in and I say, “man, I’m really hot,” and you say, “you’re telling me.” That same old line which I pretend I don’t like but of course I love it. Then you come up behind me and grab some random body part and move suggestively and I say, “go on, you perverse old man, get out of here so I can finish up.” I smirk and make some wisecrack but I adore the familiar intimacy. And then you stick your finger into a bowl for a taste and I tell you it’s unsanitary and you laugh and drift into the living room. You have the day off when I’m cooking because you do so much of it in daily life. But you don’t get a pass on the cleanup. I shimmer through these daydreams like an apparition with you and they cloak me in a happiness that’s so transient and ephemeral. I’d love to catch up with a wavelength in time where we are solid and physical instead of the myth we’ve become. My precious boy.
So there that is. I am away for large swaths of time in this watery internal cave because I don’t like a lot of what’s going on in reality. As I slide through my days in real time, I remembered when I read The English Patient back in the early ‘90’s. It was one of those rare films that wasn’t a disappointment to me as so many films based on books can be. Sweeping, beautiful, romantic, passionate and ultimately sad.
I’ve been taking a class on Persia and Greece and there has been mention of Herodotus and his histories. In the movie, a tragic plane crash in the Egyptian desert leaves the wounded heroine in need of medical attention. Her lover carries into a cave where the walls are filled with petroglyphs that include swimmers. As he leaves her with food and water, he also gives her his copy of Herodotus, a “good read” as she awaits his return with aid. That’s how I feel now, swimming in a my interior cave with a good read for company hidden away from the rest of the world. Wondering when I’ll come to the surface.