“There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” So says my friend Bill by way of Hamlet. Or, put even more elegantly by Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/none but ourselves can free our own mind.” So, I reason, change my thinking; free my mind. Soon and fast, please. Reading my thoughts the other day, a friend sent me a passage from some kind of life-coachy thing: a piece about how, as we grow into (it is to be hoped) wiser and kinder people (which is for me, the goal, at least occasionally, on good days), we begin to choose our friends and partners and intimates not so much on the basis of attraction but on some other factors as well. Like, can they pay the rent, or at least not punch a hole in your wall each month so that you’re adding construction costs onto your monthly mortgage? Or, are they enough aware of their own narcissism so that when your beloved fourteen-year-old cat has died after a protracted battle with her liver, they do not say, “Hey, cheer up—it’ll be fun to get a new kitten!”
For readers following this blog, you know that around Easter I became obsessed with finding a small animal, namely a bunny, to hold. Not to keep—just to hold for a while. Believing, as I do, that the Devil is in the grasping and God is in the letting go, I did not pursue this particular desire, to the relief of Tom and (I’m sure) the bunny and its mother. But life has a funny way of speaking to you.
“Hey, Nerissa,” Life said—or at least a voice of some kind woke me from my post lunch nap. “I’ve got something to show you.”
In this case, the Voice of Life was Tim, the insulation man, who had come to pump insulation into the new room in our house. I followed him out the door, barefoot and shivering, my hands crossed over my chest rubbing my upper arms. The tulips and daffodils we planted last fall shocked me with their reds and yellows as I squinted into the midday sun. Tim is older than me, with a fringe of grey hair that hangs well below his blue Red Sox cap. I followed him silently around the side of my house over to the fence, which separates my yard from our neighbor’s.
“Look,” Tim whispered, pointing to a mound of grey insulation fluff packed up against the fence. I tiptoed around the new hosta plants, poking their staffs up from the earth. I peered into the hole and saw a shiny black rabbit eye, winking up at me, surrounded by soft brown fur, the backs of his two siblings. Three baby rabbits snuggled in a rabbit hole.
“They really do make rabbit holes,” I whispered back. I don’t know what I had thought, in all my Alice in Wonderlandish contemplations, but I guess up until that point, I thought the proverbial rabbit hole was just that: proverbial.
I am preparing for my wedding. My second wedding, I should say. And as joyful as Tom and I are at having finally found each other, as much as we are looking forward to celebrating the big day, and the marriage for (happily) ever after, we are also looking back down the rabbit holes we emerged from, and a piece of that involves the last partners we sallied down the aisle with.
It’s a well known psychological saw that we tend to be attracted to people who will help us work through our problematic issues with our families of origin. Some say this is the very essence of what we like to think of as “chemistry” between two people: it is simply the stunning recognition of emotional attributes our parents or older siblings possessed that caused us pleasure and pain. There is nothing wrong or stupid in being attracted to these people; it’s just hard wired into us. The trick, say the smarty pants sociologists and psychologists, is for us to pick people who are emotionally healthy, loving and who don’t force us to sit with them and watch reruns of “Married…With Children.”
The passage (by Melody Beattie, I later discovered) said, “No matter who we find ourselves relating to, and what we discover happening in the relationship, the issue is still about us, and not about the other person.” That’s the good news and the bad news. No one out there is going to fix us, and we aren’t going to fix anyone else. No one out there is going to rescue us nor are we going to rescue the other guy. If I’m annoyed with my partner, it’s usually because he is behaving in a way that reminds me of my own annoying qualities. Or because he’s watching “Married…With Children.”
Martha Beck likes a little slogan called “You Spot It You Got It,” and I mutter it under my breath sometimes when my partner ruminates for the millionth time that week about what he wants to be when he grows up or changes his mind three times about where he wants to go for dinner. There’s another teacher I like named Byron Katie whose basic premise is that we all live by stories we create, stories that can keep us trapped and miserable. Stories like, “I am fat,” or “ I’m too old to go to graduate school” or “I could never afford to go to Spain,” or “my husband doesn’t really love me.” The Work she suggests we do is to continually ask ourselves, about these stories, “Is it true?” And then “what am I getting out of this story? How do I feel when I chose to believe it?” If you can see that the story is really serving to make you miserable and may not actually be 100% true anyway, you can see if a different story seems just as true or truer. She works with “turnarounds” which allow you to see how the story you’re beating yourself up with might be better told in a different way. So “Tom can never make up his mind about where to go for dinner” has a few different versions. One is, “Tom can make up his mind about where to go for dinner.” (Because he always eventually does.) Also, “I can’t make up my mind about where to go for dinner,” is actually just as true. I can’t, often. And if I could, I might tell Tom where I really wanted to go and then maybe he wouldn’t have a problem. Learning to work with these turnarounds helps me to forgive the other person for being, ahem, human, and more importantly, to forgive myself. The longer I go along here, the more I seem to get it that Life, God, Humanity, Goodness, all that we want and love (Love, for that matter) is about connection. Meanwhile, addiction, the Devil, disease, “Married…with Children” and all things Bad are about disconnection. For me this manifests in a myriad of ways: making little lists of numbers add up (or not) in columns in the margins of a notebook, counting calories or dollars or some other quantifiable metaphor for turning life into rungs on a ladder.
When I do my real work, which is connecting with myself, with a compassionate truth (like, “Nerissa, you are lovable”) rather than a conditional truth (like, “Nerissa, you were late again today”), I get a lot back. To wit: my ex-husband and I did the best we could. He is a good person and so am I. And: I think the whole point of this human life is to learn how to love and how to be loved. Lately, in the past few weeks, a number of people have talked about the love of worrying, as in “she loves to worry.” And I realize that’s true of me: I think I hate it, but if I really hated it, why would I make lists of numbers? Why would I worry about how many calories I ate or how much money I make? Doesn‘t Jesus say something about the lilies of the field and how we can’t add one cubit to our stature by worrying? And yet, when I think of a relaxing activity to do tonight, I think about making a budget for May to make sure I meet my expenses for June. And what I really need to do is page through Brides’ Magazine to choose a hairdo for my wedding in two weeks.
We have a hard time celebrating in this culture. If you don’t believe me, look around you the next time you’re at a wedding or a party. If it were so easy to celebrate, why is it that people overeat and get drunk? Real celebration is about real connection. Engagement. And sometimes life feels too complicated to show up and engage. Sometimes we’d rather check out. We go down our rabbit holes. We act out our early patterns with our current partners. We hang on to them and ask them to be other than who they are. We blame and we self-destruct. Why is it so hard sometimes to dance?
I don’t believe in wrong moves anymore. Or at any rate, I think we can always turn around.
In order to do this very difficult thing called loving and letting ourselves be loved, we need first to separate before we connect. We need to have a Self before we can surrender it. We need to be single and strong, our own best beloved, before we can become engaged.
So back to the bunnies. The day after we discovered the rabbit hole, we came back to check on the baby rabbits and found it empty. We had assiduously kept Cody, our Aussie Shepherd from nosing around there, and I find it hard to believe that some other predator could have gotten them. And besides, it’s my story. Maybe what we discovered was not really a rabbit hole but more like a rabbit birthing nest. I am hoping the bunnies have made a new hole, possibly in the loose earth beneath our barn. We see their mother hopping about at night, collecting food for them. We don’t need to hold them. We know they are with us, sharing the land. And I can say the same for David and Tom’s ex wife. When we walk down the aisle, they will be there in spirit, giving us away.