I am journaling for Lent with a friend of mine who is a minister and a mom. We are using as inspiration a book called 40 Days with Kathleen Norris. Norris, a poet and a Benedictine oblate, is deeply in love with words, and never fails to open something in me with the daily reading. On day 36, KN writes, “ To make the poem of our faith, we must learn not to settle for a false certitude but to embrace ambiguity and mystery. Our goal will be to recover our original freedom, our childlike (but never childish) self-consciousness (here the discipline of writing can help us)…We will need a powerful catalyst.”
The prompt today is “the antidote to pain.” Well, my per-usual antidote to pain is to nail everything to the ground. So much for mystery and ambiguity. I am not generally a fan. I am literal minded when it comes to my little kingdom, though I celebrate the mystery in my own songs and writings. Maybe that’s the way most artists are: in order to make a living as a creative, one really does need to grow up and learn the nuts and bolts of adulthood, such as balancing one’s checking account and trying to make a spending plan based on an income that in the best of times fluctuates. Because I am a creature whose head has perennially been in the clouds I have found it necessary to anchor my reality firmly in practices that keep me grounded. (If I had a nickel for every time a teacher sharply rapped on my blank windows and said, “Nerissa! Stop daydreaming,” I wouldn’t be writing about money at all). To this end, I meditate, journal, do one single daily sun salutation, run for 20 minutes, keep meticulous records of my earning and spending, practice my guitar, and keep in daily or at least weekly touch with my nearest and dearest. If I don’t do these things, I become unmoored. Perhaps these practices are my powerful catalysts.
Yesterday, at the last minute, someone dropped out of the writing retreat that would start that evening. It was nothing personal—in was a situation out of the participant’s control, and it was clearly a loss for that person. But my reaction to his not being able to attend was over the top. First I fumed at his circumstances, then at God, and when the fuming burned itself out, I was left with a heavy grief in the shape of an old empty (but still weighty) burlap sack. And I could not drop it. There is a term in 12 step recovery called “self-seeking” and recovering addicts are cautioned to avoid self-seeking motives every single day. The trouble is, no one I know really can define self-seeking. It’s kind of like selfishness, and it’s kind of like ego-building, but opinions vary about what the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, really meant when he wrote the term.
Yesterday, I was carrying my heavy burlap sack home with me from the co-op after getting some last minute ingredients for my caramelized red pepper and onion gruyere quiche that I planned to serve that night. I made some calls to friends who would understand, but no one was there. So I prayed. “God, take this away. Have my sack. Or if you won’t take it, fill it with something better than my hurt pride and needless anxiety. Also, I get that I am doing that thing again: trying to know that I am OK based on how much other people love me. This is an old one. I want to get my self-worth from my own heart and from your sun shining on me. Not from applause and attention. But I feel like I am knocking on your door and you won’t let me in.”
At that moment, I was driving up the street that runs perpendicular to my daughter’s school. I had a moment of wishing she were in my arms the way she had been as a baby. And just then, the door burst open, and her Kindergarten class came tumbling out, and right in the middle, my daughter in her royal blue parka and hot pink gloves. The kids tore over to the playground, shouting and running and climbing. I pulled over and parked illegally, ran over to the gate. The teacher said, “Lila, your mother’s here,” but before Lila could even look up, I scooped her into my arms. “Mommy,” she said softly, snuggling her head into my chest. A moment later, she broke away, dancing off into the playground. She skipped about in circles singing, “Ring around the Rosey, Mommy Mommy Lovey!” and held up her two hands, making the sign for “I love you” like Mohammed Ali in When We Were Kings as he trained for the big fight. She came running back to hug me again.
I get what self-seeking is. It’s seeking the self outside of the self, and all the ways we do this. It’s thinking it’s in a pair of Frye boots (and the outfit that will suddenly make everyone finally understand who you really are.) It’s going out for dinner. It’s an A on a thesis. It’s the fifth drink. It’s finding Ms. Right. It’s your best friend telling you your stomach doesn’t stick out. It’s your sister telling you her son was just as impossible as yours when he was the same age. It’s the radio station playing your CD. It’s even standing up and singing the beloved hymn in church. It’s all manner of good and not so good and downright harmful ways of engagement, and I will—we all will—continue to seek them and do them for the rest of our lives. I don’t see a cure. But I do see the problem, and I do see a solution. The solution is, as usual, kindness, humor, time, and most of all, being awake. The solution is also bowing to the mystery. Reveling in the ambiguity. Doing our little disciplines, because indeed these are our offerings to God, these are the containers in which we put our kindness, humor, time and attention, but we need to hold them lightly, make our containers out of breakable clay instead of cast iron.
My only real job is to be Nerissa. To be her, to celebrate her gifts and to respect her limits. To listen to the quiet voice in her heart whose voice can only be heard when she is still and silent and seeking. I think this is the true antidote to pain.