If he walked, he discovered, he did not have to think…when he thought, his mind went to places he could not control, places that made him feel uncomfortable.– Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Sometimes I have the luxury of ‘knowing’ exactly why a particular piece of writing grabs my attention, but sometimes, like this time, its just a feeling, a feeling that permeates below the surface of my conscious churning.
For example, there’s a line in John Green‘s book Turtles All the Way Down, that I’ve been wrestling with for months now. This is how it happens for me. Somewhere in the constancy of my reading, some unanticipated line or passage sticks out and sticks into me. Like a thorn in a lion’s paw, I gnaw at it. I try to get it to come loose, but it only digs in deeper until something either shifts, changes, or moves, and then all at once it gives way. Usually, that thing that shifts, that thing that moves, that thing that gives way and comes loose, that thing that changes – is me.
Green writes that “True terror isn’t being scared; it’s not having a choice in the matter.” I’m often confronted with the terrifying feeling of not having a choice, a feeling of not being in control, a claustrophobia of invisible, yet impermeable walls closing in ever closer. Somedays, I feel like I’m living an unhappy version of Pinocchio’s story; a puppet who never became a real boy, or perhaps crueler still, a puppet who became a boy, but never lost his strings. Someone else is calling all the shots, and my illusion of choice stretches only as far as the twine that tethers my limbs.
John O’ Donohue writes that “Sometimes, when life squeezes you into lonely crevices, you may have to decide between survival or breaking apart…At such a time, you can do nothing else; you have to survive.” Most of us find ourselves here at one time or another, trapped within circumstances and events that are beyond our control, and faced with a seemingly lose/lose choice of caving in or carrying on.
Maybe that’s why most of us strive so desperately to avoid the idle quiet that forcibly confronts us with the seeming choice-less-ness of our predicament. We keep ourselves tightly bound with a busyness that escalates into exhaustion, all in an effort to avoid the silence of our aloneness.
Fellow poet, James Lee Jobe defines loneliness as “That empty feeling multiplied by silence.” That sentiment strikes a deep chord with me. Loneliness has been heavy on my mind, and silence is a strange form of amplification. The quiet can increase focus and clarity, but it can also amplify the sound of our own insecurities.
I’m a person who relishes and thrives on time spent being quiet and being alone. As an artist and a writer, the silence of being unattended is what I need most in the process of listening to what my work has to say, and yet, the soundlessness of my solitude can also be my downfall. The silence can become subtly serrated. When it does, it cuts with jagged impartiality, and here, being alone is carved into the shape of something lonely. As it says in the Twenty-One Pilots song, “Car Radio“: “Sometimes quiet is violent”.
For almost year after my ex-wife and I separated I couldn’t meditate. I couldn’t bring myself to the cushion. I couldn’t bring myself to sit. I couldn’t handle the clamoring chaos of the quiet. I couldn’t handle being present. I knew that things could never be as they were. Everything had been irrevocably altered in ways I could sense, but couldn’t fully comprehend, both then and now. I understood that life would be unavoidably different, and that I would have no choice but to be different as well, but I didn’t know how or in what way. I still don’t. I knew there was no going back but, I didn’t yet know how to go on. Most days, that statement still stands.
Sometimes being present, means being present within an ambiguous space of liminality and transition, and although this is “where,” according to John Brehm, “mystical experience most often occurs” it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it. When the present-moment becomes a kind of purgatory between the already and the not yet, the difficulty of being mindful becomes doubly compounded, because the present is the one place we most want to skip past.
Sometimes we just don’t have it in us to face the present moment directly. Sometimes we have to sneak into it through the backdoor of being here. Sometimes we’re brave enough to cannon ball into the depths of our now-ness, but sometimes we need to gradually wade in through the kiddie pool first, where we can more clearly grasp the safety and stability of our feet touching the bottom. Sometimes we need distractions. Sometimes we need to be distracted; distracted from the dark places of discomfort that can pervade our sense of the present. But, we need healthy distractions.
Healthy distractions do not seek to anesthetize our awareness of the uncomfortable “here”. instead, healthy distractions are the sleight of hand trick that allows us to witness the prestige of magic appearing in unexpected ways and in unexpected places. Books, and poetry, and music, and art, are our Anam Cara, our soul friends offering us their guidance and aid. They greet us with gentle grace, and carry us until we feel at home in the mystery and ambiguity of who and where we are. Through the caress of their care we enter our own immediacy more armored, more centered, and more ourselves then we were before.
Sometimes any place seems better than “here”. “Here” is often exactly where we don’t want to be. “Here” is where the hurt lives, but here is also the only place where healing can occur. And, even then healing is rarely what we expect.
John O’Donohue writes that “Every inner wound has its own particular voice.” Healing does not resolve the hurt but finds a kind of harmony with it. It intonates itself to the pitch and timbre of the pain until it becomes a new composition, a new movement in the symphony of ourselves. When we rearrange the structures of our distress, the sounding voice of wounds refusing silence become a song. Sometimes healing continues to carry the hurt, and thus, sometimes healing simply means that we are learning to walk with a limp. But, when we walk we discover that we stronger because we’re here.