Acceptance

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Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephon’s delightful 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail.

People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they’re saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all… has happened.

I find my mind revisiting this quote more often than ever recently. As with many things that the late, great Nora wrote (particularly under the guise of her charming, timidly brave little bookseller character struggling to make sense of her “small life,” Kathleen Kelly), it resonates with me deeply on a personal level, while simultaneously serving as a reminder for something I’d do well to be more conscious of.

There’s been a lot of change in my life of late, and not all of it of the kind I have liked much at all, but it is all equally inescapable, because that is simply how change works. One of my greatest projects this year, in terms of scope and difficulty, has been practicing something more akin to what is often called “radical acceptance,” because really the only surefire way to tackle the heart of anxiety is to surrender as much of the illusion of control as possible. In reality, all I can control in my life — and even then, it’s a pretty tenuous concept of control — is my own reactions to whatever I encounter while living it, both mentally and emotionally. It’s a daily struggle, as is everything else when laboring under anxiety and various other fun little neuroses, but it’s the best anyone can do, including myself. Part of being gentler with myself on the whole includes accepting these things, rather than pretending I’m supposed to, for some inexplicable reason, be stronger or tougher or more capable than anyone else. As my favorite musician once sang, “I will do what I can do.”

Besides, as another great writer, Junot Díaz, once wrote, “I guess it’s true what they say: if you wait long enough everything changes.” When I’m being overly critical of myself, I often like to paint hope as foolish, but the truth is, waiting on changes of a more positive type, perhaps even for things I still dare hope might happen (however unlikely they may be at the moment) — so long as it’s not the only thing I’m doing — is far from the most ridiculous way of spending some of my mental energy. Better that, than concentrating on talking myself out of hope. That makes it far too easy for other negative thoughts to creep in, especially those about myself, and in learning to fend those off better, too, I’m just less inclined to entertain them.

I have a whole little list of reminders saved on my Keep (notes) app on my phone, and I’ve found that taking a moment to re-read it every day has been a rather helpful habit to get into — along with others I’ve been stricter about lately (exercising, standing up straighter, being more consistent about my skin care, watching my breathing patterns, meditating before bed, being more mindful of my anxious thoughts whenever they might start to rear their heads, etc.). They are fairly short, though the full list is about 30 items long. Then again, it does seem to be the simplest things that, in the end, are making change a bit easier to deal with. As ever, one day at a time.

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Lagan

They fell, down a mountain —
or was it a crevasse, a ravine?
Were they buried beneath the frozen white,
or when those hills were green?

My father falls after them, still, and slowly
I could not stay behind to watch
as it ate away at the both of us;
now he’s gone too far away to touch.

My desires, my wishes reach out to me now;
they’ll grasp my ankles, if I let them
My dreams of late are filled with waves —
from the deep, I hear their darkness beckon.

The sand is hot, birds wheel in the sky
while that old water calls out to me:
“Remember how I held you so many times…
remember how well you loved me?”

As a girl, my mother called me her little fish
and I wished for the scales of a mermaid
Forgetting that, were I ever to meet one
only death could follow her serenade.

So I fell last, not where or how I believed
could ever creep in and surprise
And now, at last, she beckons me, and I
am lost, falling through his warm eyes.

Just as before, the water is fierce
deep and strong and dark…
Below is ahead of me, above is behind
as her waves swallow my last little spark.

As a girl, I read of little Hattie
and the ocean she watched all her days
Now I wait, too, with these hopes like rocks
weighing me down, though he never stays.

 


 

Image © Barbara Cooney, 1990. I still own my old, well-loved copy of Hattie.

(And still, I am no poet. Apologies; I couldn’t sleep.)

Invocation

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There are many things in my life I feel I can admit to no one, but one of those I tend to hide more deeply than most is my horrible tendency to wish. I wish for so many things, even as I wish for them knowing I will never have them. Maybe writing about it now will help me learn to squelch it beneath my heel and walk away from it, give up on it, leave it behind me. Sunday nights always seem to bring out the melancholy in me, so now is as good a time as any.

This is something that tends to start when you are young, and reading stories that unabashedly encourage it. I always harbored a deep skepticism of the fruition of wishes in such stories, even when I was young; I might have enjoyed reading them, but I did not believe in them. Wishes only came true when magic was involved, and magic wasn’t real. This only would really have been apparent to anyone who might have read the silly stories I wrote myself, as a young girl, because of the manner in which I was quietly visible through them. Like most children, I wrote obvious avatars of myself, though always vastly improved ones: I wrote about prettier, stronger, more feminine, braver, more happily-destined girls. They would often have my long blonde hair, they would wear my favorite colors, they would have pets with the same names as mine, but they would have lovely faces unlike mine, grace where I had none, resourcefulness and spontaneity in place of my stillness, my silence. They would run away from home to become someone I never would: someone you would want to read a story about.

I was the kind of little girl who wrote romantic endings to those other girls’ stories, for which you could, still, always, blame the wishing. I wrote them into adventures I would never have, love stories I knew I would never live. I wrote about brave, sweet boys falling in love with them, because I knew there would be no love story in the world outside pure fiction to ever include the real me. (In my first year of high school, a favorite art project was re-illustrating the original version of Snow White, which is, unsurprisingly, much more brutal than the Disney version. Three attempted murders, rather than just the one, and the Evil Queen wants rather bloody certainty that the prettier girl is dead.) In this world, boys and men would see other girls and women and hold their image in their mind as something to be remembered or admired; they would ask for their time and company, crave their attention, give them flowers, show them they were worth noticing. All my life I have stood separate from experiences like those, until I came to know how invisible I was. I knew even when I was young that I would grow up and grow old alone, with my naturally down-turned mouth and frightening eyes. I resented that I was brought up to hope for better or more, that I even wanted companionship or affection from others, that I couldn’t keep it in stories alone and safely away from me, that I couldn’t keep to my very separate self and not be left wanting, when I knew I would never get any of it. Some days I could slap myself across the face for all of it. So much fruitless, hopeless energy, all gone to waste.

Hope is a dangerous thing in a lot of ways. In its best form of power, it can break people through dark and unforgiving circumstances, giving them strength. In its worst, it can just hollow you out inside, with nothing to take its place. Wishing is a word that makes it sound more whimsical, and far less treacherous, than it is. Wishing can hurt you, wishing can destroy you; it can wrap its deceptive arms around you and turn you into the evil witch who hides in the dungeon, the cave. (Cut her heart out! Put it in a box! Maybe then she will finally be as empty as me.) She gets the best songs, but in the end she always dies. Wishing belongs in fairy tales, even the grim ones, when dropping a penny into a well and pouring a song into it can actually produce something in return. In real life, only shadows and echoes bounce back; everything else is just swallowed up in the dark.

Doggerel

In my waking nightmare
time flows in a backward stream
slices around my hollow torso
forks between my trembling legs
drags the bed of my restless mind
dredging up memories like rocks

Recalling them runs me through
like little biting blades
so far behind me now
things I’d never dared wish for
already here and gone, never to return
greed for lost things scrapes away at my insides

No one cares to remember them
prefers them erased from the ledger
so: I do not turn my head
if I’m to be forever alone
hollowed out by lonely hope
mine stands as the only record