While I lay in the bed singing Christmas carols from the old songbook, Bug draws. This elaborate little world is his latest creation. He stops me before I kiss him good night so he can explain all the elements of his picture.
Conveyor belts rolling down from up in the treetops carry suitcases to the inhabitants below. The suitcases have “all the things people need, like food and hammers” for underground life. The dude on the right sitting under the tree is fishing from the subterranean spring that runs along the bottom. His catch is stored in wooden storage boxes up above, and the conveyor belts ferry fishes down when people need food.
The ladders help people and dogs and cats go up and down, too. There are also slides. The little dwelling on the bottom right is a dollhouse someone built so the kids have something to play with down there. There is a kitchen for cooking. The brown stuff is the soil, Bug explains, and tunnels through the soil are for the worms. The guy fishing uses the worms for catching fish.
The skull, bones, and wishbone in the middle of the brown patch are remains of a deer skeleton decomposing in the earth, which Bug put in to show that this whole place is “way down underground.”
You know what gets me? Every single inhabitant of this bunker is in a state of perfect bliss. The fisherman, the cats, the children: all happy. The dudes schlepping suitcases are grinning. The fish swimming in the spring and languishing in their boxes are wearing smiles. Even the dead deer is content with the situation.
Predator, prey. Worker, player. Compost, bloom. No matter where anyone lands in the tableau, happiness is an option.
A man at the gym asked me what my plans were for the weekend.
“Camping,” I said. “And swimming in fresh water.” What bliss! “It’s been my one goal for the summer. Lakes. Swim in lakes.”
“Not a fan of the beach, huh?”
This stopped me. I shrugged. Who doesn’t like the beach?
“No, it’s not that.” I put my hand on my heart and leaned in. “It’s just about going towards what I love.”
“Oh.” The stranger at the gym began to focus with great intensity on tying his shoes.
Does it sound odd? “Move towards what you love.” Maybe it is awkward to say such a thing during a casual exchange, but I don’t know how else to give it voice. A person don’t need to dislike wineries or shopping or baking to find herself doing less of these things. It’s only because she learns that her joy is in rock climbing, playing mandolin, or growing basil on her patio. Letting go of half-pleasures is a necessary cost of orienting towards bliss.
For years, I have believed a rich life is a varied life. “Balance,” say The Many, “is the key to wellness.”
What if balance is trickier than we think? Maybe we are simply excusing our piecemeal approaches to entertaining our fragmented selves. What if we know our purpose, our rightness, is in this small assortment of things here, and the more we do them fully, and the more we do them with our whole attention, the richer the flavor of our lives?
What if less variety, not more, is the secret spice?
Certainly, engaged citizenship requires baseline familiarity with a broad array of topics that affect our shared residency on this planet. Scan the headlines, visit a museum, serve someone in need, and learn a craft. Also, though, have the courage to choose. This one gift is my calling. Or maybe,This slim collection of activities are the homes of my true Yes.
To follow that call can be so very scary. What if I am wrong? What if I am no good? What if I fail to attend to all these other toys and creatures clamoring for my attention and I miss something big?
I can only say this: To know your love is a precious thing. It is the rarest treasure, and you have to dive, over and over, into those suffocating sea-caves without anybody pointing the way. Sometimes you can only see a glint of it and the closer you get, the darker it seems. You have to believe yes, it is gold, when all around people are hinting that you are a fool and all your plunder is rust.
Your hands begin to wander back to the mundane entertainments. Your mind whispers that it would rather be at ease with simple tasks than faced with the raw tenderness of its own unfurling.
By all means, avoid the call. It’s okay. Your avoidance will not last long.
Once you know, once you have spoken that truth aloud backward and down into your own belly, there is no turning back.
Then the TV is no longer a foe, the bottle has no allure, the 270 “friends” and their carbonated noise up on the surface of the earth are rendered silent. You no longer need to retreat from the things you believed were holding you back, and you do not need to name what you do not like. Instead, you emerge towards your own self becoming.
You lower your thirsty body into the cool waters. You know you have arrived.
Move towards what you love. What you leave behind cannot break your heart, because your heart is only just now being born.
You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.
– James Baldwin.
Is this what happens after the tender eardrum bursts? Is this what it is to bear the thick scars, to become deaf, to grow hard?
The third man in less than a year has chastised me for lacking empathy. The third man in less than a year has used the word “selfish” to describe what he sees. It seems this should sting, but oddly, it falls away. The swelling sensation in my chest for my son has to indicate some capacity for care, right? The dedication to Bug is so instinctive and self-sacrificing that this thing love, while perhaps not my dominant chord, is a riff repeated throughout the improvised song of me.
Perhaps the other exes will be nodding their heads as they read this. You said it, brother. That exhalation of relief at being rid of such a cold and steely thing. This is confusing, though. I have also been told I love a little like scalding, a little recklessly. Sometimes, when I get a verse of you stuck in my head, it is hard to shake it free.
A brief and totally unscientific survey of the years preceding the marriage indicates a pattern of ducking out from under the proffered embrace. I fling myself back into the path of my own cyclone, grab hold, and ride. Yes, even if it bucks and hurtles me away from the you whose train just carried me where I claimed I wanted to be.
Alas, this string of men may be right. Should I be peeling back prickled rind of their criticism? It would be nice to make a course correction if it is called for. It’s just that I find myself a tad too unconcerned with this interpretation. Selflessness may be overrated. (Spoken like a truly spoiled brat).
Early experiences with the blues teach a girl a few things. Like, take charge of your own joy. Don’t wait for someone to re-write the song in a major key. Go the way your blood beats. It was never Tee’s job to make me happy, and one of the things he told me recently is that a few years into our relationship, he stopped trying to put a smile on my face.
Sad, but you know what? Good for him.
The desire to be a generous mother and wife eclipsed my capacity for blazing my own trail. We try so hard, the driven among the women, to be soft and giving while the unwritten strains of our own magnum opus threaten to burst the seams. I am sure I am not alone in having tried to quell the jostling desire for a more symphonic score, to draw the string around the neck of the sack and press it down in the river of some man’s cadence until it stopped squirming, until it just floated away on his meandering current.
It does not work (unless it does, and which is worse?)
Certainly, I love to love. Also, though, I have learned to return to the dance, my sweat, the craft. Ink, work, questions, earth. It is unfair to rely on him to conjure the beauty. I have learned how to work the magic with my own hands. This has a price, of course. Not needing him might (oh, irony!) leave him hungry. No wonder I begin to look ugly when, upon hearing the growl in his belly, I toss him the bones. He is no fool. He sees me heap my son’s plate with an extra helping, then retreat behind my velvet curtain and feed in rapturous solitude on the meatiest bits myself.
Please allow me to veer to the side here and indulge in a little contextual inquiry. How is it that we are already a few bites into the 21st century, and a woman who unapologetically carves out time to tune her own strings has to ask herself if she is a loving enough creature? When I rise before the sun to dance or run or write, I know I am leaving that man to his own dreams. He wants me to stay. I get it. I have been the one left before, and it chills a little, right at the moment when the most delicious thing would be to slide up into a tangle of limbs. Girls who become women have to swallow the hardest lesson: the thirst accompanying the beloved’s receding back is what finally makes you decide to stop grumbling at the barren sky. Pick up your own instrument. Pluck out your rough tune. Turn your voice to the horizon and call the rain.
She wakes up when she realizes she no longer aches for company. She has, without knowing how it happened, stumbled upon a few marvelous secrets.
One: it is really a treat to work hard and succeed at something that matters in the world, and the more you do it, the more you want to do it.
Two: that thing you enjoy? It turns out to be just as fun when you do it alone, in the company of strangers or friends, or alongside a lover. It really doesn’t matter. Just doing it makes you smile down in your belly, and that is the truest source of your generosity.
Three: loneliness is the low-hanging fruit. Joy is just a little higher up. Take your pick. Both are within reach.
For me, the greatest surges of love occur when watching a companion out there, bringing his hands down across the taut skin of the world and banging things into place. Seeing him play and build, move and shake? That’s what sets this lady to shivering, not his proximity. Or, at least not only that. I, too, crave the comfort of the hearth, and it is so very nice to spin a cocoon of whispers and flesh, to fit inside someone’s breath.
Please consider this: I am as warm blooded as the rest.
When I turn away, I am not running away. It is not a cold thing. The door is open wide, and I am still offering up whatever scoop of love I have to give. It overflows, and I will gladly glop the best of it all over you once we have both worked up a hunger in our separate pursuits.
It is a gift to wind through the fine lines of the staff with a companion, feeling the buzz of resonance when hitting the notes together. I am not so self-contained as to welcome the prospect of a lifetime of playing one-handed. Being able to cherish and care for a companion, to practice love, not just as a three-chord ditty but as a collection of movements, is a breathtaking blessing. I hope I am fortunate enough to have a chance to attend to a partner’s place in things, and to help him open his voice to his true lyric.
If I am free to practice mine alone, I will leave him to his. My arms will stretch wider, my mouth will lift higher, and I will be able to hear the many layers of him. All I need is a few measures to compose myself.
Growing up ain’t easy. We resist it until we surrender, and then we pull our fingers from our ears and hear, at last, how clear the sound of our own pulse, how perfectly timed the beat of our veins to that of our feet. Finally, we do not concern ourselves with finding someone to fill the gap. We write the bridge in where it belongs, and then cross it to meet our companion, weaving together our whole and separate songs.