Monday, September 24, 2012

"Live in the layers, not on the litter"

Transitions have never been my strong suit.

I'm not sure transitions are anyone's strong suit, but I'm particularly bad at them.  When the ground starts to shift underneath me my anxiety quietly but insistently fills in the cracks, expands itself, and eventually threatens to break me apart.  I am particularly adept at ignoring it, and then, when it demands my attention, I shape it into something less than it is.  The reshaping is an attempt to make it less damaging, less severe.  It never works.  Change is not a thing to be denied.  As summer folds into fall, and kids begin school, and birthdays and anniversaries abound, and Yom Kippur approaches, I feel the shift acutely.

We have had a stretch of quintessential fall days of late.  Cool, crisp, clean air dominates.  Pearly light adorns the trees in the morning and again in the evening, the two getting ever closer together.  The evening sky turns that shade of blue with glints of gold, a color reserved, it seems, for this weather, at this time of year.  I love this weather, even as I wistfully admit that the oppressive heat of summer is mostly gone for the time being.  My bones feel alive in the summer.  Every year as I wait excitedly for that blast of hot, insistent, humid air, I can feel the pores of my bones open expectantly.  There is one bar in Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata that, after pages of minor key solemnity, shifts into a major key.  That one bar explains everything: a lightening, a weightlessness, a freedom.  By the same token, the cool air that seeps in as the seasons change feels almost threatening.  Or at least that's how my body reacts: protect, gird, prevent.  I can feel my body involuntarily try to buck the change, as if digging in my heels would somehow make a difference. But the coolness always comes, chasing away the heat like an old cantankerous lady with a broom on a cabin porch.  I guess I should be thankful for the warning of fall before the winter exerts its more weighty smack down on me, but I still shudder at the thought of that lady's broom.  Even so, during these cooler days, I am reminded to shift, to settle back in, and begin again.

Fall seems to be the time when things get organized.  And, Lord knows, I love organization.  I like predictability.  I like schedules.  I like to know ahead of time what's about to happen.  It's a set up, of course, because life isn't like that.  By allowing myself to depend on organization I set myself up for the fall.  Sometimes it's just a misstep, sometimes it's like jumping out of the plane without a parachute.  In my very literal, photographic-memory laden brain, I imagine there to be scaffolding all around me.  Every branch of it at perfect right angles, and me, like a monkey, swinging from one to another, always sure of where my fingers should land.  I've built that scaffolding with care for years, rung by rung.

There have been two themes that have been unavoidable the last few days.  They seem to be lurking in broad daylight for me recently.  The first is of naming.  Or, to be more precise, un-naming.  It was the topic of Margaret Edson's keynote address at Power Day (a workshop for nursing and medical students at Yale where the students start to think about what power means in health care) last week.  She is a graduate of Smith College, which endears her to me without hesitation.  What makes her indelible is her personality, her command of words, and her wit.  I write that chuckling because she is the author, of course, of Wit, a Pulitzer Prize winning play, and the reading used for Power Day.  It is an amazing work, one that never fails to unhinge me at the end.  I've read it countless times, and the ending, even though I know full well what's coming, makes me tremble each and every time.  In her address she talked about what it would be like to lose a name.  My immediate reaction, from somewhere deep in my hippie-raised heart, was "Absolutely! What a great idea!"  That enthusiasm lasted about four seconds before I was reflexively grasping for the monkey bars.  What would it mean to not walk out of my house each morning as a mother? a nurse? a wife? a woman? Katy?

Not two days later, Jan Nielsen, senior minister at our church, delivered a jolting sermon using the story of Jacob as a way of approaching atonement for Yom Kippur.  She talked about Jacob wrestling with a man who, by the end of the night, un-names him, and in doing so, frees him from his past of misdeeds and destruction.  She posited that becoming your best self is, at best, a work in progress.  For. Ever.  I groan internally at the thought.  Forever seems like a long time to be comfortable with change.  How many names does one have to lose, exactly?

The second theme that lurks is from Ray Bradbury's All Summer in a Day.  The title itself makes me shudder.  It is the story of the sun, being present for only one hour every so many years, and what happens when you miss it.  It has been referenced in the last two books in a row that I've read.  In both, the theme of that story underscores the narrators worry that happiness is but a fleeting moment, and the opportunity frail.  It's a well placed reference in both, making both stories more acutely devastating in a "don't let this slip away" kind of way.  Like I need help feeling more claustrophobic.

These two themes have been kicking around in my head as I try to figure out where they'll settle in to my being.  This idea that there might not be an absolute, that the names and scaffolding might not be real, unnerves me.  For better or for worse, I am sometimes so literal I actually hurt myself rolling my own eyes.  Never mind the times (frequent) that my fingers slip.  Or get blisters.  Or just miss the bar completely.  I still trust in that framework, and could actually name the bars if asked.  But I think that what the transition of fall, and the naming, and the Ray Bradbury story have been suggesting to me is that perhaps it's in the spaces between the bars that the good stuff resides.  My heart rate increases just thinking about it, but maybe the falling is where the real living happens.  And maybe the bars won't look the same after you let go.  Maybe some things you lose when you let go.  But maybe the sun in those spaces is so bright, so bone-warming, that it's worth the chance.

I'm not sure I will ever convince my body not to fight the coming cold.  I certainly never expect to be fully accepting of transition.  But maybe in these two ideas I can start to remove a finger or two from the rungs, or lose a name, or even (gasp!) be comfortable in uncertainty.  It's daunting to consider, but maybe it's worth the risk.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Layers by Stanley Kunitz

Song list:
Words Fail You by Kris Delmhorst


Half Pint the Buckeye said...

Wow. Truly profound insight in there, Katy. Thank you for this entry and for your bravery to embrace the transitions as well as those trusty rungs. Needed this reminder. :-)

Adam Hirsch said...

Wow. You hold and evoke an emotional moment so artfully and well, you make me look at our own coming autumn differently. Nicely penned! (typed, whatever.)

Tracy said...

It's totes worth the chance and the risk!
I might not cope with change any better than the next lady. But I'm particularly well suited (or maybe well-practiced) at dwelling in the waiting space. I love the changes of the seasons more than I can describe. It helps to read you peal these layers away- helps remind me of the cool ways we are different. And remind me how busy your brain is. Ilu.