Two Hands Clapping

The dogs are panting. My house is empty except for three overheated canines. It is their nature to breathe these chants. Some days I want to curse them and say, “Leave me be! My partner and son are gone; let me float totally free.” But then I find the walk with them brings clarity: above creek I hear the crickets and see the fireflies. Their joy, free of leash on country road, makes me feel beneficent. If I were worthless they would get no freedom: floor-bound chez moi. But here we are, a veritable clan of creatures, trotting and smiling, a sniff here and there to investigate what the path has to offer.

But then the dogs fade to the background. I stumble into the nougat of me, unfiltered through duty and company, the twisting crawling snail that I must celebrate: see; see through; see into. Inside is an emptiness that wants to fill up — some nascent piece of me that still wonders about those breaking moments from childhood and fantasizes about replaying them. But rerun can’t provide the inflate — I must find air in these very moments.

One day I found my voice. It was wavering at first, but I spoke up and ears turned because I had something to say. Part of me was afraid of this light; I’d developed an innate instinct to self-dim. But then I met Jack Hirschman. He had a peculiar habit: after he finished a poem at a public reading, he’d back away from the mic, raise his hands, and join them in resolute claps. A casual observer might have thought it tacky for him to celebrate his own poems. But if you looked closely, you saw that Jack wore a slightly surprised expression in these moments, as if shocked but delighted by what had come out of him, by what his words had done to the night. It was not egoic: he was honoring what was moving through him. Jack taught me that getting out of our own way is sometimes the most noble act.

After one reading in North Beach, I watched Jack slip out of the bar. The crowd and praise is just too much, I thought. I peeked out to the window to see where he was going. I found him on Kerouac alley, throwing a tennis ball against the mural  — his own little game of toss and catch. He seemed so enraptured and childlike then, as if inhabiting his truest self and thereby transcending constructed ones.

Deep in the Batch

With Annie and Rio in California for two weeks, I’ve been submerged in what a friend of mine once referred to as “Deep Batch.” It’s what happens to a man when his partner and kids are gone.

Deep Batch usually begins with a sweet honeymoon period where I am absolutely delighted to have no one to answer to. I get to do exactly what I want to do! What a change from the compromise inherent to cohabitation and parenting, blessed beings that they are. For days I lounged around, proudly not checking items off my overly long to-do list (I’ll have so much time on my hands, I’d thought during a pious moment days prior,  I’ll be able to accomplish so much! Ha.) I was messier than usual, resorting to my childhood ways of not really cleaning up after myself in the moment and instead leaving it for a furious cleaning session later on. I…sunk…into…shit.

There’s something to be said for this. I am dutiful, functional, and organized normally, so there’s a profound release in lying back deep into the sofa and doing absolutely nothing constructive. I started contemplating sloths.

Just then I heard a loud knock and opened the door to find two friends who visit sometimes: Stimulation and Anesthesia. You may have met them. I knew they’d come.

“What the hell are you doing on the couch?” they sneered. “You look terrible. Get something decent on and join us: we’re going to a fantastic party.”

Off we went.

It was truly fun for a while. But then the rush of the ride started to wear off. As much as indulgence can sound like “Me! Me! Me!” ultimately it’s not self-serving. And so I returned to where I was when I first touched down solo in Raleigh days before: the black hole of me. I’m not comfortable there! Never have been. It’s easier to check out or run away.

The next night I watched the film Another Year, which has a scene where a family is burying a mother. Only a handful of people are there, and a stranger presides over the short ceremony. The mother’s only son comes late and misses the service. Suddenly I started thinking of my own father, how alone he is, and I began to worry that his end might be like this. I felt my breath catch and I immediately recoiled, as though touching the fear that was coming up in my solitude would injure me. That night (and the subsequent two) I dreamed that I was tripping over monstrous snakes that appeared out of nowhere. In one, I jumped back in terror as a monstrous copperhead slithered in front of me, only to watch Annie and our good friend Kate swoop in calmly, put the snake in a bag, and take it away. What am I so scared of?

Pema Chödrön has referred to the art of finding “cool loneliness”: those sublime moments when we grab a flashlight and crawl into the hole of ourselves and accept what we find scrawled on the walls. I believe the term was first coined by D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in Women in Love, “What did people matter altogether? There was this perfect cool loneliness, so lovely and fresh and unexplored….Here was his world, he wanted nobody and nothing but the lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, and himself, his own living self.”

Why was this kind of loneliness so elusive and fleeting? I’ve had moments of deep union with myself when I have stuck with my fear and traveled alone into my own abyss. Why could I not choose that again more readily?

I do not know. I do know that if I am patient I usually find my way there. If I overact to the times I fail, or run, then I get stuck on recrimination and am therefore closed to the moments when I do stand my ground, dig in, and come out holding the slippery light. And so I decided to surrender to my own vagaries and imperfections — if you are on a roller coaster, enjoy the damn ride. It was then that those slivers of light began to come in through the cracks: watching live music and feeling joy swell inside me from the sheer talent of the performers on stage, that warmth finally released in slow tears I didn’t bother to wipe away. Later that same night, an impromptu dance with a stranger: lively, daring, sensual. And the day I helped a friend; the gazpacho I made for my own delight; the many dips in the river to wipe off all the grime from the fight.

And then the sweetest ones came. Alone in the living room, listening to a song Annie and I sing together, and feeling an ache so deep for her I can barely believe it’s real. And then the next day, finding a card Rio made for me, the scrawled letters and the way they spelled “I will owas love you Timuthe.” It is then I truly miss them: not in that needy way of requiring their anchors, but in knowing they are allies and partners on this jagged path we each ultimately face alone.

Using Your Bridges

A few days ago I found myself at the foot of San Jacinto Mountain watching my family ascend 6,000 feet in a tramcar traveling along a thick steel cable. Due to a lifelong fear of heights, I’d decided to forego the trip, opting to stay at the base lodge that was more like a sweat lodge crowded with impatient people and incessant announcements over the intercom. Right before the extended Blackshaw clan of 20 boarded, my brother-in-law Evan handed me his iPod and said, “There’s some poetry on here if you need some peace while we’re gone.”

Did I. I had gotten thrown off my horse by the huge crowds and my own mixed feelings about giving into my acrophobia and therefore missing beautiful views and the chance to watch Rio delight in the ride. So I hiked up to a solitary spot among the rocks, put on the headphones, and watched the words I heard etch themselves across the blue sky.

The British psychologist Robert Holden read a Hafiz poem and then talked about his tendency to be “dysfunctionally independent.” He spoke about how long it took him to seek help in the face of a challenge instead of clinging to the idea that all progress must be self-generated.

I can relate to this. I tend to isolate and insulate right when I need help the most. Part of this is familial: I think my whole family needed a lot more help than any one of us was willing to admit — we labored silently in our own salt mines. Another part is cultural: I definitely internalized the American notion of self-reliance and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

Fortunately, over time, I developed an extensive support network that I learned to trust when I needed help. Sometimes it was a friend; other times it was music, or poetry; even a walk has at times eased me out of tight corners. And yet when I feel stuck I often forget the very resources that bring me back to feeling connected and whole again. When I reach pain’s island it’s as if I snub my nose at my potential helpers in a masochistic prolonging of my own despair.

And so I must remind myself again and again to “use my bridges”: to draw on the remedies at my disposal instead of drowning silently and cursing those who can’t read my mind and intuit my internal thrashings.

On Christmas this year I found myself in a dark place. I couldn’t say exactly why: we’d enjoyed a nice morning opening presents, and Annie and Rio were downstairs making French Toast. I suddenly felt daunted by my own home: the voices of my loved ones seemed intrusive not soothing; the material goods around me felt like stones hung around my neck; the house was more like a trap than a shelter.

The fact that my pain was minor compared to the world’s mattered not to me in the crease of this shadow. I knew rationally that there were many people in that very moment who felt deep pangs of loneliness because they were experiencing Christmas Day alone; who was I to feel shitty ensconced in my relative bounty? But loneliness and despair are merciless predators; when they strike, their bite is acute and absolute.

But then I remembered something Annie had told me several years prior. I’d spent almost an entire day worried about money. Annie must have noticed my furrowed brow, so she asked me if something was bothering me. I finally shared what was on my mind. She said, “Wow, it must have been painful to hold that alone.”

And so on this Christmas day I reached for my phone and called a few friends. None of them picked up, but I left messages telling them that I felt sad. And simply saying these words seemed to lift me, as if the act of asking for help were as much of an antidote as the actual words someone might say back to me. When I break out of my own busted circuit of self-reliance, the world opens up.

Back at the foot of the mountain, I marveled as the words of the poets took me out of my own personal chaos and onto calmer, more expansive ground. No longer was I strung out over the holiday crowd’s bedlam and my internal civil war. Evan had been a bridge. Hafiz had been a bridge. The sky had been a bridge. Even the damn iPod had been a bridge. I’d been open to them all. And there I was, whole and ready to embrace my family as they came down the mountain.