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My parents tell me that I used to walk into a room – this is when I was little, when I was five or six, maybe even younger, when I was in preschool – I used to walk into a room and make friends with everybody there in minutes. That, as a toddler and a little kid, I was outgoing and friendly and that people liked me, other kids liked me. At least, insofar as little kids actually like each other and aren’t just using each other for toys and target practice.

But that’s interesting to me. I don’t really remember it: my primary memory from preschool is hiding under a table eating Play-Doh, and I don’t particularly recall anyone joining me for that. But apparently they dropped me off for my first day and I ran straight in, giggling, and found somebody to nap next to. They told me this story after they took me to college, the first time, and we were at some presentation during orientation, and I found a few guys to talk to who were sitting behind me. It’s just like when you were little, said my mom. Always the social butterfly.

Actually, let’s be honest: it was shocking to me. I forced myself to turn around and talk to them. I’m glad I did: they became good friends for the rest of my time there, and even since I left I’ve kept in contact with them to some degree. It wasn’t particularly natural, yet here is this story of myself as a precocious child surrounding myself with friends apparently effortlessly, and assumedly guilelessly. Social butterfly. It gives me hope. Because if I am anything, down underneath, inside, I am still that five-year-old girl, intent on food and bugs and rainbows, unafraid.

I suppose the point is that I don’t have to change anything about myself. Just notice. Just notice when I am uncomfortable, notice when I am comfortable, notice what I really want to be doing when what I’m doing is what I think I should. I don’t have to try to find my inner self, unquote: my inner self is here. Now. It’s me. I’m her. There’s nothing to uncover or discover or recover, I just have to let it be, let myself be, and here I am.

So I can’t look for it or bring it to being, because it already always exists, but I am covering it up, or blocking it, or something, because I feel the disconnect, I can feel it all the time, it is the root of so much of my fear. So what do I do to heal that rift? How can I bring the actual into this moment, here, now?

Attention, attention, attention, right? Notice when I’m lying, and why, notice when I evade, when I flick my eyes away, notice when I pose or when I ever so casually turn my head just right so that the light catches my eyes just so. Notice when I’m being deliberately uncouth or flippant, notice when I’m jealous or nervous or when I feel insecure. Just notice the thoughts: What if he doesn’t call? I don’t have to change it, or try to change it, just notice. Once a thought is recognized as such, it loses its power. Just a thought, and an emotion just a thought paired with a physical sensation. I am afraid: I think something, something negative, he will leave me if, and my jaw tightens, my shoulders tighten, there is a pain in my belly, a depth in my throat that fills with ocean. But in a way, that isn’t anything either, and – or so Zen tells me, I haven’t really gotten the knack of this technique yet – but apparently if label the thought and then I relax into the feeling, the physical sensation of it, it’ll dissolve, in time. A true emotion, an appropriate emotion, says Zen, is a momentary reaction to what is happening right now.

If a car hits you, I will experience an emotional reaction, and that’s fine. The problem, it seems, is when that emotion becomes something in itself, its own entity that then has a power over my life. I’m not sure I like that: If a car hits you, I want to be able to feel that grief. Though once I write that, I realize that that’s exactly what they’re saying to do: feel it, all the way, in your body and through and through, feel every twinge and every stabbing pain, let the body take it and process it and really go through it, all of it, and then let it go.

We aren’t good at grief in this society. We tend (it seems to me) to punish ourselves for it, or to just deny it all together, or to try and transmute it into anger or productive work. How much better if we could rub ashes on our faces, rend our hair, rip our clothes off and scream and scream and scream? Black veils and quiet weeping seem no substitute for a deep ululation, a good keening, or an incoherent wail. I don’t like the word mourn: it seems so Puritanical and composed. One mourns by folding one’s hands and bowing one’s head: hardly enough. How come we can’t throw ourselves on the ground, pound the earth, claw at our breasts, scream? And then, when we’ve really felt the pain, let it move through us and move us, let it dictate our arms and legs and voices, why can’t we then let it go and let ourselves remember the joy?

This is my vision of a proper grieving (grief is a better word: at least it conjures images of wracking sobs and grimaces of despair): When you hear the news, you dissolve. You become the grief, in whatsoever form it requires of you. I imagine myself full of expanding noise, but I suppose others might collapse inward, silently. You live the grief as long as you must, until it has passed through you. Don’t eat if you can’t eat, don’t dress if you don’t want to dress: run the streets disheveled and shrieking if you must. Close yourself in a dark room if you must. This is loss; this is sudden vacuum where a love used to rest. And when you’ve finished, remember the joy, and laugh. The pain should be felt fully and wholly and completely so that the laughter can follow.

Let it be known that I compile this theory of grief without having yet lost someone truly near me, and no one very near at all since she died, is it five years ago now? Seven? But it seems better than our slow decaying of feeling, than the cast of darkness that falls upon a life for years and years and through which one has to struggle to breathe. Not that the pain will disappear if it is felt immediately: loss doesn’t disappear. I know enough to know that. But I feel like we give it the wrong power, that by denying it we allow it to sneak under our skins and rob us of joy. There is a beauty to loss, I know there is. Like the beauty of any tragedy, which opens us to the greater joy.

That’s the thing: We discover things in crisis, just like war forces new technology. Spiritual crisis creates spiritual growth. When she died, I changed everything I believed: All my theories about reincarnation and god and the meaning of life were suddenly useless, impotent, purely obsolete. Meditation, she says, is like forcing a crisis, every day. You sit there, and you have to look at yourself, and your ideas, and your big extravagant philosophies, and you have to put aside – try to put aside – the incessant clamor of distracting thoughts, the little blinking lights and flashing signs and TV jingles that bustle about importantly all the damn time. Put aside the worry about the paper and the gas bill and will he call will he call will he call? And then all you’ve got is the blank inside of your head, stripped eventually of its pointless decoration, all the gingerbread embellishment we spend so much time – so much time – polishing and updating and concerning ourselves about. And when you’re reduced to just this moment, this breathing in and out, this very second now, now, now, now: it’s terrifying. There’s no reason to assume that this second will be followed by even one more, much less the million future seconds that I’ve spent all my previous seconds planning for. I could die right now. And hell, I don’t want to think about that any more than anybody else does. I want to believe that my plans and my charm and my savings account will protect me from disaster. You can’t hurt me: I’m too pretty, and I’m too young, I’ve got too much going for me. Tragedy, don’t come near me: I’m going to change the world, just once I get my degree and find a job and save up some money, and once I get my hair cut, and once I find a boyfriend who really, truly loves me. He’s out there. So just wait, death, wait, cancer and truck drivers reaching down to change the radio, wait, plane crash and AIDS and depression, even you, wait, wait. I’m not ready, so I must be safe. I’ve just got so much to do.

I try not to take this life for granted. I can’t think of any better way to ensure the loss of something than to take it for granted. Except perhaps to fear its loss. Best to just love it, thank it, give thanks from here to next Sunday every time you remember that you can walk, that you can breathe, that you can taste and see and smell and move your fingers, give thanks for the stairs you can climb and the hand you can hold, the sunlight you are here to warm beneath, the food you can place in your mouth and chew and swallow and survive. I try to be grateful for every step, these days. (And you’ve given me that. I don’t know if it helps (helps? I don't even know what I mean by that, but I think it might be rude, and I'm sorry if it is) or if it means anything to you, but you’ve given me a gratitude for my body and its abilities that I hadn’t ever considered before.)

It isn’t easy; certainly it’s much easier to just go through each day and assume that tomorrow I will also be able to get out of bed. But this, too, shall pass, this body, this moment, this life. I am a fluid medium, and at any moment – try to really, really, feel that – at any moment, it all could change. Sure, I’m young and healthy and vegetarian, but there’s not really anything preventing me from having a heart attack or an aneurism, just sitting here, typing. There’s nothing preventing my lungs from giving out, nothing preventing a car from hitting me at seventy miles an hour on my walk home from school. I could die in my sleep tonight. There is nothing, nothing, and nothing I can do to save myself.

I mean, yes, I can eat well and exercise, I can look both ways when I cross the street, I can make sure my car has good tire pressure and that I lock my door at night and go to the doctor regularly, etcetera, but all the rivers flow to the sea, all the roads end at the same place, and that’s death. Period. Eventually it will find me, and, as far as I can tell, the best thing I can do is be grateful, in my body and in my heart and in my mind, for everything I’ve got. For the pain, for the dull passage of time, for the heartbreak and the tedium and the barking dog and the flea that bites. Grateful for it all.

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Anonymous said...

everyday i come here wanting to read a new chapter. after a dry spell, THANKS for coming back!!! i am really enjoying this. it is a way out of my life and into someone else's for a few minutes at a time.

i only knew you for a short time; and even though we rarely agree on things (abortion, gay marriage, eating meat, President Bush), i enjoy getting out of the midwest and into a california girl's mind. i dont know what i'll read when the journey with you is over. keep up the great writing.

2:14 PM  
Kat said...

Thank you. There's another couple thousand words of this to go up, but since I've finished writing it, the urgency is lessened somewhat. It's good to know somebody outside my own head is reading it though.

If you're interested, I've started a new blog here that's sort of a continuation of the same process. I don't know if I'll keep it up, but we'll see.

7:27 PM  

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