The gift.

A recurring theme in my life these days seems to be the idea that good can come from bad, that great beauty can be born from great adversity, that even the most oppressive rain clouds possess their silver lining, if you’d only look for it.  Several days ago when I was having a particularly tough day, I returned to a poem called Roll the Dice by Charles Bukowski.  It was introduced to me several years ago by my friend Barbara and I’ve leaned on it many times over the years when I’ve needed a lift (If you’d like to read it, it’s pasted below, at the bottom of this blog).  The poem is about dedicating yourself to your passion and being so committed to it that you’re willing to suffer through any hardship in order to make it happen.  A couple lines in particular stand out:  Isolation is the gift.  All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it.

Isolation is the gift.  It’s tough to be alone.  It’s more fun to be with other people, to be social.  But it’s also a distraction.  My acting teacher said something in class a few weeks ago and I wrote it down because it really hit home.  Anyone who’s trying to do something wonderful will suffer in loneliness.  He was talking about artists – actors in particular – and the art of creation.  But I think it’s true for most people. As much as we are social beings, we need time on our own.  To do our work.  To figure out who we really are without the opinions of others reflecting back upon us like mirrors.

I have a complicated relationship with my aloneness. I hate it because it makes me feel just that:  lonely.  But I also need it.  There was so much to do after my mother’s death, that I didn’t have time to grieve.  My dad was ill and he was alone.  My grandmother was ill.  Bad things kept happening and crisis management stretched on for months.  And after both my dad and grandmother passed, I threw myself into work, co-producing a play festival and a film, and just keeping so, so busy.

At the time, I think being busy and distracted was what I needed to do.  I had to keep moving in order to get through.  But now – finally – I’ve arrived at the place where in order to get better and to heal, I have to sit with myself and let the feelings land where they land.  No one else can do that for me.  No one can grow for me, or process my emotions for me, or get healthy for me, or make the changes I need to make for me.  That’s my job.  And like it or not, it’s a path I’ve got to walk alone.

It feels paradoxical to say that because throughout all the tough stuff, I’ve been surrounded by wonderful, loving people who’ve buoyed me up, who’ve supported me, and without whom I never would have survived the darkest of the dark.  I don’t want to slight them or diminish their crucial importance in my life.  I’m eternally grateful for every helping hand and kind word.  But now I’ve got to scour the depths of my soul for what’s next and the only one who can do that is yours truly.

We don’t walk into the great unknown willingly because change is uncomfortable and, at times, terrifying.  But life, through circumstance, will drive us to change.  It pushes us to be better when we won’t do it on our own.  It shakes us up when we need to be shaken; it creates obstacles that we must overcome, so that we can surprise ourselves with our resourcefulness and stand in our own strength.  ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ has become such a cliché I almost hate to type it on the page, but clichés are anchored in our vernacular for a reason:  they’re true.

I’ve survived a lot of traumatic life events over the last two years, but I’m starting to see the gift in what has happened to me.  It’s tough to admit that because it almost sounds like I’m grateful for the bad stuff, or that I somehow wanted it to happen.  I’m not, and I didn’t.  But I’m grateful for what it has taught me, for what it is teaching me.  I’m grateful for the ability to look at my life through different, wiser (and yes, sadder) eyes and appreciate how truly beautiful it is, and what a gift I have indeed been given.

Isolation is the gift.  For me, right now, it is.  I’m surrounded by amazing people who love me and whom I love back.  I’m lucky.  But – at least for the time being – I’m on a path that, on a fundamental level, I must walk alone.  To grow.  To explore.  To write and to do my work.  And to just come home.  To me.

Until next time, friends.

Roll the Dice by Charles Bukowski:

If you’re going to try, go all the way.

Otherwise, don’t even start.

This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind.

It could mean not eating for three or four days.

It could mean freezing on a park bench.

It could mean jail.  It could mean derision.  It could mean mockery — isolation.

Isolation is the gift.

All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it.

And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds.

And it will be better than anything else you can imagine.

If you’re going to try, go all the way.

There is no other feeling like that.

You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire.

You will ride life straight to perfect laughter.

It’s the only good fight there is.

Familiar.

It’s funny the little habits that you get used to.  The everyday comforts that make up your daily routine; things you don’t really notice until they’re gone.  The gym is one of those comforts for me.  I’m a person who never stops going – I’m always working, juggling projects, tackling a to-do list that continually rolls over – and exercise is a crucial tool I use to not only stay healthy and feel good about myself, but also to manage stress and to release the tensions that build up in the course of my busy life.

The other day I found myself working out in an unfamiliar gym.  It was weird.  All of the equipment was different and suddenly I didn’t know which settings to put the machines on or how much weight to lift.  I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what I was doing, all the while trying to look like I knew what I was doing so that some testosterone-fueled meathead didn’t offer to help me.  Ugh.

Wandering around this unfamiliar place, a song I always skip on my iPod (because it’s too damn sad) came on, and suddenly it was a year ago and I was back in Olympia.  After our Dad died, my sister Deirdre and I spent a week camped out in the house he shared with my Mom.  We sorted through old books and music and photos.  We did everything from ordering flowers to placing obituaries in newspapers to picking out gravestones to meeting the lawyer, to booking travel to Medford, Oregon for the memorial, to figuring out how we were going to transport Dad’s ashes to said memorial (that is a story in and of itself), and about a million other little things.  I spent a couple days essentially living in my Mom’s closet, going through piles of clothes and jewelry and beauty products, and her epic collection of Stephanie Johnson bags that I’d given her over the last eight years.

We worked hard and it was sad but it also felt good to work, to do stuff.  We’d collapse each night and wake up with the sun each morning, the to-do list never ending.  We’d talk over coffee first thing in the morning and review the day and write absolutely everything down because our brains were so frazzled with overwhelm from impossibly hard jobs and the utter emotional exhaustion of sorting through a house filled with a lifetime of memories.

After several days of this, I hit a breaking point.  The never-ending freezing February Olympia rain made the thought of running outside unappealing, but I knew I had to exercise or I was going to lose my mind.  So I told Deirdre I was taking a break from the vortex (our term for this weird, disorienting time in our lives and the Olympia house in particular; time disappeared inside the vortex) and getting a guest pass to the local 24 Hour Fitness.

And there I was.  In a gym full of unfamiliar equipment, unfamiliar faces.  My Dad had a membership there and saw a trainer 2-3 times a week until very close to the end of his life.  Dad’s trainer’s name was Dave, an exceptionally wonderful soul who, when he found out that none of Dad’s kids were able to get to Olympia for Thanksgiving, delivered a turkey to his home so that he wouldn’t miss out on his Thanksgiving meal.

I wandered around the gym, wondering what type of exercise Dad could possibly do when he was so sick, wondered at Dave’s patience, wondered if I should ask for him so that I could meet this man who’d been so kind to my father, but also knew if I met him I’d break down instantly and I couldn’t do that because I was barely, barely holding it together.

I wandered around the gym like a zombie, tried and failed at a few machines.  I finally settled on a treadmill because that I knew how to do.  And I ran and ran and ran.  And that song that I always skip came on my iPod, with lyrics about trying your best and not succeeding, about losing something you can’t replace, about learning from mistakes (fuck you, Coldplay) and this time I decided to let it play.  I can only imagine what I must have looked like.  Between the endorphin release of the run, and that stupid song and fighting so hard against the vortex that was sucking me in. Scanning the gym in this unfamiliar place, looking for my missing father (did I somehow think he’d still be there, that I’d find him?), in a town that used to be my home but was so far away from home now.

I don’t know how long I ran.  I was exhausted, I was weeping, I was drenched in sweat, but I couldn’t stop.  I knew that back in the vortex more sad jobs were waiting and I didn’t want any part of them.

There’s a lyric from a new Ingrid Michaelson song that as of late has been running through my head:  I’m a little bit home, but I’m not there yet.  That’s how I felt in the vortex.  That’s how I felt in that 24 Hour Fitness in Olympia.  And that’s how I felt in the unfamiliar gym the other day.  I’m a little bit home, but I’m not there yet.

So I guess I’ll keep running.

Until next time, friends.

Eleven.

Today, I have a familiar craving for rocky road ice cream.  The same craving I have had every year, on this day, for the last eleven years.  On September 11, 2001 – and the days following – I ate a lot of it.  So did my roommate, Rachel.  We were college students, just beginning our junior year at the University of Southern California, when the planes hit the towers.  We were in shock, depressed, hopeless, and we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the news.  So other than attending the occasional class (which, in the days following 9/11, were really more like group therapy sessions than anything academic), we holed up in our apartment and ate ice cream.

I’m hard-pressed to remember a lot of specifics from that stretch of time 11 years ago.  I remember on the morning of 9/11, I called in sick to my PR internship on the 25th floor of a tower on L.A.’s Miracle Mile – only to find out they sent everyone home anyway for fear that Los Angeles would soon be under attack.  I remember Rachel waking me up, crying, telling me to turn on the news and not to leave the house.  I remember, dizzy with a head cold, turning on the T.V. and thinking I was dreaming.  I remember calling our best friend, Kate, who was on a study abroad program in Australia and desperate to come home.  I remember sleepwalking through my classes, and getting into a fight with my theater professor because I couldn’t bring myself to read plays that I was supposed to.  I remember lighting candles, and buying an American flag from a vendor on a freeway off ramp and putting it on my car.  I remember attending a vigil in front of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles among thousands of other people who were just like us:  helpless, confused, struggling to come to terms with what had happened, but desperate to connect and to find a sense of community in our grief.

My story isn’t like a lot of the stories you hear about September 11th.  It’s not a story of survival or a story of incredible loss.  In a lot of ways, it’s pretty unremarkable.  When 9/11 happened, I was just a girl in the process of becoming a woman, when the world got turned upside down.

In the years since that terrible day, there have been many defining moments that have carved our young millennium and have shaped and shaken my adult life:  the Iraq war; Hurricane Katrina; the global financial meltdown and the Great Recession; the explosion of social media; the Arab Spring; the election of Barack Obama.

But before all of these things, there was 9/11.  An event, that, for all of its horror, also left upon me an indelible impression of the magic that can happen when good comes out of bad, when hope comes out of tragedy.  In the days that followed 9/11, I will never, ever forget the overwhelming sense of community, the sense of national pride, the compassion, the kindness I experienced from complete strangers.  I haven’t seen anything like it before or since in my lifetime, and I fear I never will again.

How is it that we end up here – eleven short years later – so terribly polarized, so contentious, so bitter and full of hate, so unwilling to empathize with each other and unwilling to work together and compromise to solve the problems that our nation faces?  How quickly we forget that we were once all in this together.

Today, as we mark another anniversary of the terrible tragedy of 9/11, I hope, I pray, that we are also reminded of this simple truth:  that life is fragile, that it’s beautiful, and that our worlds can be turned upside down in an instant.  Why not spend the time we have left being a little bit kinder to one another?

And eating plenty of ice cream.

Until next time, friends.

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