Strong

Tonight when the big orange dog jumped up on the leather couch he couldn’t settle. He’s a lanky dog, so sometimes he can’t quite maneuver himself into a comfortable position. The problem is this: after he turns south and shakes, and then turns north and rubs his head on the back cushion, and then twitches his back paw and turns south again, thinking perhaps he’ll lay his head on the arm rest instead of in my lap, his fur has gone all static electric wild, and he’s totally freaked out. You can practically see the sparks shooting and his synapses shorting, and you just can’t figure out how to help him. (And if you are thinking that at this point a rational person would instead be thinking about how to get the big hairy dog off the couch, I get it. But that’s not the house I live in.)

Tonight as his fur splays out in an electric halo, I hear myself tell him, “Just give up and lay down.”

Just give up and lay down. They are the kind of words that hang around in the air after you say them, determined to mean more than you intended. You keep humming them like the first three notes of a song you used to know, until your neurons get their act together and you remember that once on a very bad day, a very good priest said, “Don’t be strong.”

Seriously? I like strong. Strong is easy. Strong is cry later in your car. Strong is keep showing up on time. Strong is put the dishes in the dishwasher, prep for class, get the laundry done. Strong is “Good, thanks, and you?” or “I’m ok. Really.”

Strong is when your voice doesn’t catch when you find yourself reading out loud this line, spoken by the irritating mother in The Sound and the Fury, who, having lost her son Quentin to suicide, realizes her granddaughter Quentin is missing and says, “Where’s the note? When Quentin did it he left a note.” Strong is reading straight on through to the next sentence, without your students seeing that your heart is now on the outside of your body, all static electric wild.

I like strong.

Sometimes, though, words are spells.  When the priest said “Don’t be strong,” I stopped being strong. I cried outside under the cottonwoods. I cried in the classroom. I cried in the church and in the cemetery and in the morning and on Thursdays and when birds startled out of trees. I cried when Orion appeared on the horizon and when the cranes flew in. I wasn’t strong.

In 1994 I tumbled over a horse’s head and shattered my wrist. A great surgeon pinned my bones to a plate and stitched me back together. I remember walking through O’Hare Airport before it was fully healed; all I wanted to do was to protect it, to hold it close to me like a little broken bird. But I was strong, and I had somewhere I was supposed to be, so I had gotten on the plane. I remember how all the people around me looked like weapons; I clenched my body against them, the way morning glories fold their petals as the light wanes.

It doesn’t work like that when you’re not being strong. You don’t have any petals to close. You walk through the world without any skin, as though you’d just had your chest cranked open for heart surgery and the surgeon has forgotten to sew you back up.

When you’re not being strong, everything hurts. Things that happened decades ago when you were being strong sense your weakness and rush back to hurt you all over again. Things that haven’t even happened, like when the kind looking man at church tells you he’s come here to kill Satan today, hurt you as much as if he had actually taken a gun out of the little gun-sized pouch on his back and begun killing the people you love. When you’re not being strong you learn to call these sorts of moments trauma.

When you’re not being strong, you don’t just relinquish the job of protecting yourself from the world; you also relinquish the job of protecting the world from itself, which you hadn’t even known you’d been trying to do. You see this in the shape of your shoulders. Months later, when you have forgiven yourself for all the pain in the world, you actually choose to keep your chest cranked open and decide not to step back into your skin. You see pale green top the trees and marvel at how well the world has spun on without your constant attention.

My words don’t have the same incantatory power over the dog. He jumps off the couch, heads outside to bark and sniff for a while, and finally comes back in. This time he lands the sweet spot on his first try. As I write, his head is in my lap and I’m bending my arm at a funny angle to type around an ear. Every now and then he nudges my laptop, as if to push it away and nuzzle closer. “Give up,” I think he’s trying to tell me. “Lay down.”

(Oh, and one more thing in case it’s been a long time since you’ve read The Sound and the Fury. The second Quentin didn’t commit suicide. She escaped out the window and shinnied down Caddy’s plum tree. Life came and called her, and she ran.)

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Into the River

Way back in high school, I was the friend who would carry your secrets. Tell me your problems–I could pick them up and carry them around those high school halls without my shoulders bending a bit. Nothing marked me. People thought that was a good thing. I thought that was a good thing. Friends came out to me, told me about their abortions, explained their problems with their parents. I skipped on, their secrets and my own floating above me in a helium balloon sealed tight and tied securely to my backpack. Life was easy. I was happy.

Not that long ago, I realized that I’ve spent much of my life carrying that balloon, walking along the shore of the river, keeping my feet dry. Next to me rushed a river full of life: muskrats, beavers, river trout, crayfish, snakes–all of them were swimming by me. I kept my distance. I happily portaged other people’s problems down the river, slinging them over my head like a fiberglass canoe, but I never got my feet wet.

Suicide has a way of throwing you into the river. For a long time after the second of the two worst phone calls of my life, I drowned, I tumbled, I washed by places I wished I could stay. I fought the current, looking for the break when I could make my way back to shore.

But then a funny thing happened. Somehow my wet feet found the bottom. They  eased into the muck where tadpoles were burrowing and reeds were beginning their long, faith-filled journey toward the sun. I found myself walking in the river. It wasn’t easy. I kept losing my balance on slippery ground, and my feet grew heavy with mud. Sometimes I’d fall down; sometimes the weight of the water would keep me from walking at all. But once in a rare while, the water would buoy me up, and I’d swim.

One day I forgot to angle for the shore.

Here in the river cranes call from the marshes, eagles cast shadows, geese v overhead. Here in the river life is harder, my own problems snag on branches, my friends’ problems weigh me down. Here in the river cynicism and joy battle it out in me each day. Here in the river when the cranes call, I lift my eyes into the blooming morning sun.

This blog is called “live love leave,” and it’s about trying to learn how to do all of those things with grace. It’s about learning to play the violin, training for triathlons, loving things that are fragile, and loosening my frantic grip on the world. It’s about letting the world hurt you and love you. It’s about the shape of your shoulders as you try to stop carrying the world.

This afternoon I walked out into the hallway of my school and some kids were playing the Game of Life. It was an English project. Heathcliff and Cathy and all the gang from Wuthering Heights were there, riding their horses over the moors and ruining each other’s lives. (OK, Heathcliff was doing most of the ruining, but that’s not really where I’m going with this). I remembered how my old best friend Jacqui and I spent many hours of our childhood spinning that wheel, losing a job and going back two spaces, having a baby and pushing another little pink peg into our convertibles, getting married to Henry or Eddie or some other boy we loved from afar in fourth grade. (I suppose I should reverse those last two items. It was the seventies; we were in Catholic school.)

Not that long ago I realized that I’ve spent a lot of time learning to play life. This blog is about what I’ve learned, what I’m still learning, what I don’t even know I don’t know yet. If you plan to keep reading I have a spoiler alert: I make a lot less money than I used to. The shape of my shoulders has changed.

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