Dropping the Mask

Much of what keeps me from the page is an uncertainty of what I will write there, almost as if I must have the tale cut and trimmed to even sidle up. It’s as if waiting for perfection is an excuse for inaction. As a friend once told me about someone we both knew: “She’s no perfectionist — a perfectionist would get things done.”

And so I must wade into imperfection if I am going to put letters down, which I’ve found I must do or risk stultification; if I’m not doing it, be wary of my practiced smile.

So what story would I tell if I let myself slip into it? If I didn’t let precognition destroy my mission? I’d probably write about the joy I felt last night just throwing the football with Rio in the park as Stella sprinted circles around us, the early nightfall no reason to hem ourselves in. I’d probably write about a young friend I just made, his earnest curiosity so inspiring because he’s letting everything in; the way he described his parents, how truly loved he felt growing up. I’d probably write too of learning that an old acquaintance took his own life last week, how I sat there at the computer crying bitter tears of frustration and loss; not for me, because I scarcely knew him really, and not even for him, because I do believe that solution might have brought him some relief. No, I was really crying for his son, who in my heart was my son, and how losing a father like that would make no sense. No matter how flawed my friend was, he was surely still his young son’s hero. I never imagined as a child the pain of adulthood, and so adults’ odd behaviors often baffled me. Rio has seen me cry, but he most likely knows little of the ugly movies that sometimes run loops in my head. How are children supposed to understand when those internal cycles negatively affect our external actions? They will, in their own time, but meanwhile isn’t one of my duties to shield Rio from the sad math that never adds up?

And yet how fake this can be. It’s so rare to see authenticity, as if exposing weakness is not in fact a strength, as if life is not something we stumble through but rather a red carpet we must glide down.

Enough with the pretty pictures.

And mine is no sob story; the little I knew about my acquaintance is that his demons were louder and meaner than mine. A wise person I know recently said that the best he could do with his demons was to study them as though they were teachers. To imagine honing this skill such that what we learned could even be shared with the people around us! Talk about a service. But I tend to duck and hide when my demons show up — almost an adult version of what I did with my blankets as a child when I’d imagine scary monsters in my bedroom. It’s almost as if I have an isolationalist foreign policy with myself: don’t worry about those dark cells operating overseas. I dream of an alchemy where I meet those forces, not to conquer them, but to engage them in some diplomacy. At least then I would have something to show for my grapplings — not shadow-infused irritation masquerading as communication but some real stories from my trip behind the curtain.

I surely didn’t see this much in the men I grew up around, and I think that’s part of what made me so sad about my friend’s passing. There seemed something so male about it: his feelings of failure in a world of pressure; his dark pleasures in a world of prescription. There were a few times where he shared openly with me about his shadows, but I’m not sure he found a steady way to integrate these into his life, and so he locked them up so tightly he took away his own life. I cried both for his son’s pain and the way this lineage seems to be passed on so easily from male to male.

And so this all swirled as the ball sailed through the air between me and Rio. I can surface my painful stories in an instant, but unless I can transmute them into something useful they are really my own burden to carry. Not to say they should never be shared — in fact, to be trusted with another’s tribulations (and vice versa) can be an exquisite feeling — but I don’t think we should take this kind of downloading lightly. It’s instructive to hear body workers talk about the care they must take to avoid internalizing the pain they encounter in patients; it’s a fine, learned art to both share and receive our dark sides. We can give up the costume, but this doesn’t mean throwing our clothes on the floor. Or hitting kids with our shoes.

After Rio went to bed, I shared with Annie some difficult feelings I’d been carrying. She listened and offered comfort. My arms found her more than usual in our sleep.

Healing Wounds

Not long ago I saw a therapist who guided me through a hypnosis session that profoundly changed me.

I had talked with the therapist several times and had told him about a sense I had of a wound within me. It was a physical feeling I would sometimes get of something large, heavy, and overwhelming weighing down on me, a deathly kind of chill that would crop up unexpectedly. I didn’t know what was inside this wound, but I had the sense that something had happened to me that I’d repressed so deeply that I couldn’t name it. I have no memories of any deep trauma, so I was unable to talk or think my way toward resolution. I wanted to get into this dark hole and excavate what was there. I asked the therapist if he could help me.

He told me he might be able to help me heal the wound, but that it was likely I would never be able to understand it. “You may never discover why it is there,” he said. “But we can still try to treat it.”

To get inside the would, I’d have to get into a deeply relaxed, or hypnotic state; to get there, I’d have to open myself up and shut down my rational mind. In a few of our previous sessions, the therapist had noticed that I’d catch my emotions and compose myself right when I was beginning to cry, thereby shutting down the valve that was about to open.

“I can get you down to that spot,” the therapist told me, “but you are going to have to let yourself fall into it.”

I believed this therapist, whom a friend had once referred to as a “shaman in the woods.” I’m suspicious of hocus-pocus, but I also believe there is much to life we cannot see. I realized that I harbored a bias against hypnosis, cartoons from childhood the principal source of my crude understanding of it as a manipulative practice induced by a swaying pocket watch. The therapist was seasoned, smart, and kind. The foundation he provided was firm enough for me to trust leaping off the cliff with him.

To prepare me for the session, the therapist asked me to make a list of spiritual guides I wanted to accompany me on my trip inside. I listed specific family members and friends:  my deceased grandfather Joe and father-in-law Bill would be there. My Mom and Dad, and Annie and Rio would come. I even invited Rumi.

The day of the hypnosis, I was excited but not nervous. I had felt this wound for decades and was inspired by the idea of healing it. My therapist had me lie down, and he used soothing words and silence to bring me into a quiet, floating world where I seemed suspended outside of rational thought. He, as a person, and the room I was in, began to float away. His voice asked me to picture a place I wanted to be, and I ended up choosing the sandy beach right beside the Haw River near our house in Bynum. He invited all of my guides there, and before long I was standing foot-deep in the river surrounded by my friends and family. (That I was literally on my therapist’s couch had become an irrelevant fact.) Rio stepped forward from the circle and stood eye-to-eye with me. I was now a small boy, and not Rio’s father.

Rio said, “Come play with me.”

I shook my head.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m scared,” I replied.

“Of what?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said. “You are OK.”

Suddenly the scene was replaced by a blank screen with a strange small black circle slowly moving and circling in front of it. I told the therapist about it, and he encouraged me to look inside the circle. I did, and I only found more darkness. I had the sense that I would find what ailed me if I kept going.

Almost like an abrupt cut in a movie, suddenly I was in my grandfather’s garden on a bright summer day. I was a child. I was kneeling, and my grandfather was on his knees too, carefully showing me how to pick a green bean off the vine. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my arms. This was a scene, but it was also something I had really experienced; my grandfather had always had a huge vegetable garden in his backyard in Connecticut, and my sister and I had spent hours in it helping him and my grandmother pick green beans. In my twenties, I had lived an entire summer in a nearby lake cottage and had visited my aging grandfather weekly. Every visit, we went out to tour his garden, and we picked fresh vegetables for me to take back to the cottage.

But in this moment I was a boy, the same age I’d been with Rio by the river, and I suddenly felt a surge of positive emotion so strong it is hard to describe. It felt like the warm sun was gushing through me, like photosynthesis, like my whole insides were being flooded with the brightest white light. I was awash with love. Tears came gushing down my face in a sudden torrent. “My grandfather loved me so much,” I said out loud with utter clarity.

Just as soon as I felt the sensation, it was gone, and the therapist slowly guided me back to the river, and he soon closed the loop on the ceremony and brought me back to waking life.

As time has passed, I have understood some of what occurred. My sense is that my wound was partially healed through physically experiencing the embodiment of my grandfather’s love. This is not at all what I expected. His love had been so constant and pure in my life that I had largely taken it for granted — I certainly never considered him when I thought about pain. I’d had tumultuous relationships with other men in my life, particularly my father, but my grandfather’s love and presence had never been in question. Perhaps that is why his love, and a scene that epitomized it, was at the center of that swirling black mass, which I believe was a visual symbol of my wound. The session took me not to an answer of what my trauma was, but rather to a source that could heal it.

Today I sat on that same beach in Bynum, looking out over the water as Rio built a sandcastle. At one point he came over to me, nudged my legs open, sat down, and leaned his back against my chest. I put my arms around him and felt the sweetness passing between us. Sometimes I wonder what all of these loving moments between him and me will add up to. Which minutes will become memories? I suspect that love given and received doesn’t just evaporate; I believe it lodges deep inside of us, light we may harvest when later darkness falls.

That Night

The man had sins to confess. We in the room told him we would listen. He had written what he wanted to say. He talked about what happened when he was young. How his glass got shattered.

He then said what he had done. All the lies, secrets, sins he’d thought he’d be buried with. That he was already buried under.

The paper was shaking in his hands. He had a hard time looking up. He wasn’t a criminal but felt like one. He had deceived many, hurt some. He had cut a hole into himself down which he had disappeared. Now he was crawling back out.

He finished. He looked up, trembling.

What he’d said sat in the middle of the room. We stared at it, marveled at the twisted trunk of truth.

“You just unloaded something awful heavy,” someone said. “When you leave tonight, you don’t need to take it with you.”

The man winced as though struck suddenly with a stick. Then his eyes softened and he wept. Not all the pain was gone but some, somehow shouldered by others who noticed less its weight. We each took a piece and put it on the shelf beside our own fractured bits and left the room.