In every painting class, I start out with a well-organized, tidy palette. By the time I’m half way through, my paints are all over the place, mixed up in so many combinations that I can’t even remember what original colors I used on what part of the painting. I promise myself to do better, but I have to admit that I love the look of paint gone wild, of a life lived outside the lines. I’ve been reading Brown Dog, Jim Harrison’s collection of novellas about a character who lives off the grid and whose appetite for life makes my world of iPhones, email, Facebook and 24/7 tech seem sterile and one-dimensional. Brown Dog, a down-on-his-luck underdog with a wide-open heart, lives a simple life of hand-to-mouth and day-to-day, but his being is complex — earthy, tender, funny and fully alive. It makes me wonder if I can’t keep my palette in hand because I secretly wish my life were more colorful and riotous. So much of my time is spent on the computer or in constricted circles of the known and predictable. For someone who already lives too much in her head, the internet is a drug, a bad romance, a safety zone of seems-like. I’ve become a follower of curated lives and Pinterest prettiness, of TED talks and travel blogs, of other people’s adventures and achievements. Yes, lots of it is inspiring and useful (can’t do without my Kindle downloads!), but with all the posting, tweeting and texting, I sometimes feel like my life has a CNN news crawl running through it. Brown Dog touched a place in me that hungers for the wide open spaces of the spirit, for a wild Montana of the soul, for a place that can’t be Instagrammed.
I’m struggling mentally and physically to re-establish a yoga practice, and if you read my blog on a regular basis, you know that backsliding is my best pose. Not just in yoga but in everything. I’ll start something that is really, really good for me, and I’ll build up a head of steam and do it full out, and then I’ll miss a few days and start making excuses about why I just don’t have time for writing/yoga/gym/biking. Then I’ll mope around about what a big failure I am and how my body is going to wrack and ruin and I don’t want to go anywhere because I look like shit. Late at night, I’ll segue into how I could have accomplished so much more in my life in the past if only I’d been more self-disciplined and focused instead of hamstringing my own ambition. After a good session with the Nikki Sucks punching bag, I’ll put on my clothes and drive to Publix for a late-night pint of Cherry Garcia because, what the hell, it’s all so hopeless anyway. I deserve that fucking ice-cream! And so it goes — a cycle of good intentions, right actions, backsliding, bucking up and then buckling under. Tonight, when I found myself in the middle of yoga class trying to figure out when I could take the next class, I knew I needed to bitch-slap myself into the Tao of the Now. To focus on this class, this pain, this sweat, this pose that is beyond my ability, this present imperfect broken me. And I will have to do it over and over and over again, because there is no getting it right. There is only getting on down this potholed, beautiful, dangerous highway we’re traveling together in the best way we can. Hooray for us. As my yoga teacher says, “Cosmic high five!”
Don’t get all excited — I’m not going to reveal some lifestyle hacks that will help you clear out your in-box or spend less time on Facebook or coach you on how to show up on time for an appointment. I guess those are worthy goals, but they just don’t interest me. I know it’s not very realistic to ignore our daily bread 24/7, but it’s good to bear in mind that time is just a manmade construct and that Now is the only time you need to mind. You and I don’t have user warrantys for an hour from now, tomorrow, next year. We’re not guaranteed a chance to see the Northern Lights or hike the Cinque Terra or start exercising tomorrow (I have good intentions!). We don’t even have a lock on that lunch date tomorrow or the sale that kicks in at midnight. That’s old, man-made, Protestant, I’m-going-to-live-forever time, and we might not be here, pushing a red shopping cart around Target looking for specials. Tomorrow is a bedtime story we tell ourselves to keep the dark out — it’s human nature. It’s pretending there’s no big bad wolf on our doorstep that will eventually blow our house down. But every now and then, it’s possible to slip into Now time. There’s no clock that has to be set, rewound, adjusted for Daylight Savings Time or have its batteries replaced. You can find it in the pulsing of the blue veins in your wrists or the no-time when meditation really works or the flow that happens when you’re totally absorbed in work or love or art. And when that happens, we’re immortal. As my new favorite saying goes, “Carpe Fucking Diem!”
I’ve never had a 5-year plan or a career path and I never really exercised any kind of forethought about my life. In some ways, I’ve just wandered or been led or aimed in the direction of a vague something that seemed to call to me. For instance, I always knew I wanted to go to college, and I eventually found a way that was completely preposterous when I was 29 and a single mother of three. The route that opened before me to do that was paradoxically the result of a divorce that left me convinced that I had no options out in the world. There are other, easier paths I could have chosen to follow, but instead I was pulled to that particular one. That’s what I’ve always loved about life — you can make all the plans and preparations you want, but destiny and chance and fate will carve paths out of wildernesses that turn out to be holy roads to a promised land if you’re willing to take a chance on your intuition. They might not be the obvious paths and they might seem at first glance to be dead ends, but I’ve always somehow deep down relied on and trusted that they would be there for me. That’s why this time in my life is so confusing. Despite growing older and being content with what I’ve achieved, I still feel a deep pull toward the untried, the unknown, the unexplored. At the same time, I put up all sorts of mental roadblocks to keep me from looking for new beginnings. I know I’m in the midst of a transition and that transitions often seem like unproductive periods of stasis. William Bridges, the author of Transitions, calls this the “Neutral Zone” and regards it as an important time for reorientation. So for now, I’m just trying to learn how to let go of the old roads that brought me here and to wait patiently for my new path to find me.
Going through old photos, I came across this one taken soon after my birth. Here we are, my mother and I, at the beginning of our journey together. We both look so innocent, but by the end of her life, we had grown far apart from the closeness pictured here. Or perhaps I deliberately cut a cord that felt as if it had been wrapped around my neck for a long time. If I regret one thing in my life, it’s that I was never able to love her unreservedly or forgive her completely. Maybe because I never felt loved in that way myself. No memories of praise or encouragement from her, and only one memory of a time she hugged me. I guess it was so rare that it stuck in my mind for years. My brothers and I grew up in the stormy emotional wake my father’s desertion left behind. There was a clear division in my childhood — before divorce in technicolor, after in black and white. In my memories, our house was dark, cluttered, falling apart. Things broke and sometimes never got fixed. Tile popped off the bathroom wall and was never replaced. Walls weren’t repainted and grew dingier over the years. But things also never got thrown away. I could go in the bathroom 10 years after I left home and swear there was the same stuff still in the medicine cabinet. Over time, she filled the two extra bedrooms with shelves of canned food she never opened, old clothes, magazines she would never read again, and other flotsam and jetsam that everyone but my mother viewed as junk. Sometimes I have dreams where I’m lost and anxious in a place like that — a shadow version of the house I grew up in. To this day, I don’t fully understand why she lived like that. My mom was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and she had an incredible work ethic. She wrote poetry, read voraciously, put herself through college by working in tobacco fields to supplement scholarships, became a teacher whose students loved her, and supported us as a single mother in a time when that was rarer. But I’m not sure she was ever happy, and as she got older, there were more and more periods when she was bleakly, hopelessly miserable and friendless. As a child, I didn’t know how to help her when she was in a dark place and it scared me. As an adult, any desperate suggestions I made to pull her out of gloom and tears always met with resistance. Antipressants? Travel? Join a club? Therapy? It all sounds laughable to me now, but at the time I was clutching at anything that might rouse her. Of course, they were solutions out of an unrealistic novel in which the main character suddenly has an epiphany, comes to her senses and lives happily ever after. I wanted to fix her so that she would have a life and so that I could stop feeling guilty for having one myself. By the end of her life, I had started protecting myself against the feelings of helplessness she triggered by hardening my heart. I’ve spent lots of hours in therapy talking about my mother, and it helped me understand that there are many reasons why our relationship was so thorny and hurtful. I know that she was unable to move past the breakup of her marriage, that she was stuck in that moment in some fundamental way. I know that she was heartbreakingly lonely and vulnerable and yet somehow weirdly un-empathetic when it came to me and my brothers. I know that she grew up in a poverty-stricken home where just making ends meet probably took precedence over displays of affection. And of course I know that my version of childhood may be much different from that of my brothers. My head knows all this, but my heart still misses what it never had.
“We are homesick most for the places we have never known.” Carson McCullers
I constantly feel the urge to travel even though I find it a giant pain in the ass to plan, to pack, to enplane. But despite my reluctance and my fear of travel, I hunger for it. Today, when I was researching quotes for another project, I found this one and it was like falling in love at first sight. That feeling that someone has seen into you and and Click, you fit. Homesickness — when that happens to me it’s never for the actual home I left behind but for the one that never existed, the one that can’t be found with a GPS, the one that my soul leans toward, the one I long for wherever I am. One of my earliest memories is standing in my nightgown at the fence line of my grandparents’ farm at dusk, looking toward the line of trees in the distance and feeling sure that just beyond it was place I was meant to be. The place where I’d no longer feel like a misfit, the missing link in my DNA. As an adult, that lonely homesickness still overtakes me from time to time. And no, it’s not a hollow feeling that can be filled with Jesus, drugs, politics, career or cashmere sweaters. It’s the yearning for someplace with no name — maybe the stardust we came from or the wide open spaces between galaxies where anything is possible or just the lonely hill in the poem that inspired McCullers’ famous first novel. But we’re all homeward bound from the day we emerge from the womb, and in the meantime, this planetary home still has places to explore, to embrace, to extol in poems and love songs. Our mother, our orbit, our beautiful bed.
My 9-year-old granddaughter is having a battle of wills with her teacher. Lark likes to write long stories that take her characters into extended adventures; her teacher wants her to be concise and turn in shorter pieces. I’m biased, of course – how could someone want to cut a story that begins with, “An open-hearted wolf came to town”?! Nevertheless, it made me think about the difference between censoring and editing my own writing. My struggle is writing from the heart with no filters. I might not publish the results, but the raw material I would start with would have the energy of truth. Usually, though, when I want to deal with a topic that has left a bruise on my life, I start to rearrange it in my mind before I put a word down. It’s as if I’m jumping ahead to how readers will react, or I hate how it will make me look. So either I drop the idea altogether or the writing becomes lifeless, inert. I want to be an open-hearted wolf in my writing — fearless and wild but tender and real. I want to be an open-hearted wolf in my life — leading the life I want even if, especially if, it’s not Facebook friendly, daring to go into town with my heart on my sleeve, following the scent of a here-be-dragons soul map. I hope it’s never too late to let my wolf out.
I was listening to an interview with Paul McCartney recently in which he talked about how his insecurity makes him fear that other musicians are constantly outdoing him. His candor about his self-doubt was illuminating, and it made me admit how often I do the same thing — convince myself that other people are more creative, more productive, more innovative than I am. Obsess about how my work never measures up. Convince myself I’m too old to compete. Pick apart everything I do. Hoard my generosity. I hate how that dries up the well we all draw from. So I decided that every now and then, instead of being jealous and jaded, I’ll make a list of people whose work I admire so much that it makes me green with envy and send out hopes for success for them. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to admit that I appreciate their talent. In the meditation I’ve been doing recently, the guide says that my personal practice not only benefits me, but also the people around me who will enjoy any change of mind, heart, or spirit that I experience. When I’m bitter, it rubs off on my friends and my family and my co-workers, and from a purely self-interested standpoint, it shuts off the universal faucet from which all ideas flow. Turn on the tap!
Today when I was waiting for the results of my mammogram and it seemed to take a long time for the nurse to get back with the results, my mind jumped to the worst possible conclusion. When the news was good, the world looked as if it had been photoshopped with extra brightness and contrast added in. On the drive home, I started thinking about all the things I don’t appreciate on a regular basis and it turns out they’re all pretty ordinary and small.
- a new container for my paintbrushes that cheers me up every time I look at it.
- my prayer flags when the wind lifts them and the blessings get scattered around
- a BLT at the restaurant around the corner from my house
- knowing I have 22 miles still left when my gas light comes on.
- leaving my front door open in the fall
- my washer and dryer…I will never take them for granted!
- ordering a new book about writing
- the aluminum can lights by Jeff Kopish on my porch. I love turning them on when I go out and being welcomed by them when I come home after dark.
I’m not an Oprah acolyte and doubt I’ll start a gratitude journal. I’m way too lazy. But maybe I’ll be able to hold onto the way the world lit up for me as if I were coming home for the first time all over again this afternoon.
When I can get some perspective on my life (and how often are we really able to do that?), I realize that the thing most missing from it was a lasting relationship. The kind that you grow into and that grows to fit you but at the same time enlarges your world. Given the high divorce rate in our country, I realize that is sometimes a matter of luck, but still I have missed it. I’ve had relationships of high drama, love at first sight, heart-pounding passion, idiotic infatuation and my own sad divorce story. But it’s the domestic story I’ve lived without. The one where you have private jokes, middle of the night comfort, a shared dinner table, longevity and loyalty and dogged love. The one that persists even through the times you hate the one you love, find their habits irritating, their political beliefs ridiculous, and their taste in music barely bearable. I suppose there are many reasons I didn’t choose that or it didn’t choose me, but I’ve always felt a squirmy, unvoiced shame that somehow I’ve been inadequate, not up to the task, not meant for marriage and just plain less-than. Logically (since when is love ever logical?) I realize that many people go through life without ever experiencing this, but in down times, I’ve still felt it’s my fault and that it makes me a person of less depth or dimension. During one of those hair-shirt spells, I add to the proof that I’m lacking as a person the fact that I don’t really like volunteer work, I can’t cook, everything I plant dies and visiting hospitals puts me into a panic. That tiny plane in this photo might as well be pulling a banner through my life that reads “Nikki, You Suck!” But when I come to my senses and stop beating my own brains out, I understand that most of us go through life with a secret shame that will never be fully healed or a feeling of vulnerability in some part of their soul or just the simple realization that we rarely get everything we want. For today, I have big stacked-up thunder clouds over the harbor, a bottle of Malbec and a bowl of vegetable soup, John Travolta singing “Sandy,” an itch to try making a collage, and the finale of Orange is the New Black waiting to be watched in bed. Hi Nikki, my name is Nikki and I’d like to spend some time with you.