“We work with the substantial, but the emptiness is what we use.” ~ Tao Te Ching

“In the Midst of the Thick Wood,” Kay Nielsen

  

“In this metallic age of barbarians, only a relentless cultivation of our ability to dream, to analyse and to captivate can prevent our personality from degenerating into nothing or else into a personality like all the rest.” ~ Fernando Pessoa
Arthur Rackham, "The Ring" illustrations (#26)

Yes, I know. Once again, I have posted items out of sequence, back-posted as it were. Indulge me, please. I have been unable to get out of bed for three days.  It’s times such as these when I long for my old laptop and folding desk. At least I would be able to write while in bed. Alas, alack . . .

I watched the light creep through the blinds this morning as the clock moved toward 6 a.m. For a minute I considered getting up to write and just forgoing sleep altogether, but then my body reminded me that I really needed sleep, so I turned over yet again and tried to find a position that would allow me to be a bit comfortable as Tillie blew warm dog breath into my face while she slept quite peacefully. I looked over, and Corey was snoring quietly; Alfie was above Corey’s head on the pillow, and Shakes was buried deep beneath the covers, scratching intermittently. Meanwhile, a two-foot square of open space seemed to be allotted for me.

Let’s just say that it was not a tableau that invited the deep sleep of Ameles potamos, or Lethe. I would love to have eight uninterrupted hours of mindlessness sleep, a sleep of pure forgetfulness, no interruptions, no distractions, just sleep, and then once rested, awake to a painless new day of possibilities. That it what I would like . . .

“The perception of small things is the secret of clarity; guarding of what is soft and tender is the secret of strength.” ~ Lao-Tzu
Arthur Rackham, "Undine: Soon She was Lost to Sight Beneath the Danube"

Corey has worked four days in a row. Can I get a hallelujah from the chorus? I must say that the duty sergeant has an unenviable job, having to shift people constantly because of the unpredictability of ship movement. At one point, Corey was scheduled to work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then to go back in at 11 p.m. and work 12 hours, and while that would have been great in the hours column, it would have really sucked in the sleeping column. But he’s hanging in, which is more than I can say for myself.

I seem to be in the midst of a grand pity party, one that was not scheduled, as it were.  I know exactly what started it, what precipitated this most recent excursion into the poor, poor, pitiful me fray: I went on the Old Dominion University site to look at information for Brett’s orientation, and just for grins, I thought, I went to the English Department’s site. After perusing for a few minutes I realized that I knew a grand total of four people in the department. All of the old guard is gone. Names I’ve never heard of filled the department roster, which really set me back until I realized that it’s been a grand total of 16 years since I left ODU.

Sixteen years. The boys were toddlers. I was still plugging away at my marriage to Paul. The dogs were two black labs. The house was in most respects, the same, and I owned my favorite car, the black Oldsmobile Calais. My father was still alive. I knew people, lots of interesting, engaging people, and Mari was still a part of my life.

Might I just say that it is a bitter pill to have shoved down one’s throat—the realization that time has continued, inexorably, whilst I have not.

“But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.” ~ Lawrence Binyon, Last two stanzas of “For the Fallen”
Arthur Rackham, "Midsummer Night's Dream: Fair Helena"

Which brings me to the now, the present, the time after the past, and the question. Yes. There is most definitely a question: What in the hell have I done with my life? I am having a crisis of faith of the personal kind. I wonder what it is I have accomplished in all of these years of trying. I wonder if I have really done anything at all. I mean, what am I playing at here? I write. I opine. I open my veins and bleed onto this page, or rather, this virtual page. But to what end?

In looking at all of the unknown names in the English Department, I realized that my dreams of getting my Ph.D. in English are just that—dreams only. I have been left behind, or I have stayed behind while the canon has continued to develop at an amazing pace, largely in part because of the Internet. What these people are teaching and researching goes so far beyond what I know. So I don’t know if I could catch up to them, but perhaps more importantly, I don’t know if I should.

These people have three and four books, pages and pages of publications. They have evolved as the material has evolved, as the very institution of teaching has evolved: distance education, virtual classrooms. I don’t know if I can do that.

And so I sit here and wonder if I’ve ever really been good at anything, anything that matters, that is. When I die, how will I be remembered? As the woman who didn’t leave the house for years? As a woman whose self-image was so skewed that her mantra was “I’m fat and ugly and my mother dresses me funny”? As someone with an acerbic wit? Or as just a woman who was here and then who wasn’t . . .

“Heedless or willfully ignorant of this
procession of changes, we dream of prosperity
all through life and, without understanding
the nature of transience, hope for longevity.” ~ Hōnen
Arthur Rackham, "The Ring" illustrations (#1)

And these thoughts paralyze me, cause me to look about me as if in an unfamiliar place, a place in which the things themselves are different, the atmosphere different, the lighting slightly shifted, and the only thing that is the same is me. I think of the days when I walked around in power suits and leather pumps, so self-important, so engrossed in my own little world, my circle of power. A person to be watched, emulated, respected. Was it all in my mind?

Days from my past pass before this windowpane of memory, and I am hard-pressed to find anything significant. Has it all been an act? Was I so good at deception that I deceived myself more than anyone?

I’m not talking about the consistency of my belly button lint. These are real, hard questions, ones that I need to find the answers to lest I go mad with the thinking. This morning, as I was rolling from side to side, watching night move into morning, I suddenly wondered if one could go mad from thinking too much. And I think that yes, one probably could go mad from too many thoughts, from being unable to stop the flow of thoughts as they engulf everything, unabated, uncensored.

“This world
a fading mountain echo
void and unreal.” ~ Ryokan
 

Kay Nielsen, “Such a Terrible Dream”

   

Yet another thing came to me during my wakefulness, the song from Jesus Christ Superstar, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Don’t really know why that song at that moment, except for the very telling lines here and there: “In these past few days/When I’ve seen myself/I seem like someone else” . . . or “I never thought I’d come to this/What’s it all about?”

Is that clichéd, that I’m thinking in old songs? Probably.

See this is what happens when I don’t write for three days, but I have all of these things running through my head, non-stop, full-speed. Without the ability to exorcise the moment of disillusion, it leeches energy from everything around it and grows until it takes on corporeal form—something very real that needs to be confronted, to be battled, to be handled and then filed away in the completed drawer, a drawer that does not, in fact, exist.

It’s like those old science fiction movies in which the hero meets the dark self, and the two fight with one another in some dark alley with a rain-soaked pavement, drops of water falling from the fire escape above their heads, the sound of empty cans and cats a backdrop to the violence taking place. And the hero always wins, well, most of the time, but not without losing something of himself along the way.

Yes. That’s exactly how it is. I think.

I am reminded of James Wright’s poem, “Lying In A Hammock At William Duffy’s Farm In Pine Island, Minnesota,” which ends with this line: “I have wasted my life.”

Peace.

“illabye” by Tipper

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“The tongue like a sharp knife . . . Kills without drawing blood ~ Siddartha Guatama (Buddha)

 

“Pandora,” by John William Waterhouse (1896, oil on canvas)

“The evils of the body are murder, theft, and adultery; of the tongue, lying, slander, abuse, and idle talk; of the mind, covetousness, hatred, and error.” ~ Siddartha Guatama (Buddha)

I’m sitting here in a white cotton sweater that is probably sixteen years old. I love this sweater, even though it is torn. It is soft and comfortable, and it reminds me of my friend Mari, who gave it to me one Christmas.

"Pandora and Her Box," by Warwick Goble

I have a lot of things that are this old. I’m not complaining, just noting. Why? Well, I’m a tad upset, actually more than a tad, and once again, it has to do with my mother, the woman who can cut me down in two sentences and never glance back.

Today Corey stopped by her house to use the fax machine. My mother had a bone to pick. She asked Corey if we (more specifically, I) had made any big purchases lately. He was, understandably, confused as our purchases are limited to groceries and shampoo. My mother told him that she had heard we had bought a new big bookcase for the living room. I know where she heard this from—my other m-i-l, whose visit I mentioned a few posts ago. My other m-i-l noticed the large wardrobe that is sitting in the living room, the one that is supposed to go in the bedroom, but the bedroom has yet to be painted or carpeted.

This piece of furniture is very large and heavy. Moving it is not simple or easy; hence, we have not moved it into the bedroom. We purchased this piece of furniture four years ago with cash from our tax return at a time when money was not a concern as we were both working in good paying jobs. That this furniture is still not in a bedroom is a reflection of the state of our life right now. However, it is not a reflection of careless spending on our part, or extravagant purchases.

Try telling this to my mother who got the information from my other m-i-l, who lives in a constant state of confusion. Corey explained this to my mother, who informed him that he needs to keep me in line. Corey told my mother that I don’t buy anything, that he pays the bills and does the budget and that I don’t even go shopping, all of which is true. I have been shopping on my own once in the last 12 months—at Christmas—and even then I was very restrained and made no purchases for myself.

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.  Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.” ~ Siddartha Guatama (Buddha)

"Pandora's Box," by Arthur Rackham

Now let me pause here to interject a bit of history, and I apologize if I am repeating myself. After Caitlin died, I shopped my way through my grief. I have admitted this and owned up to my mistakes many times over. I worked very hard to overcome the need to shop to fill the emptiness in my life. I still like to shop, when I have money, but I do not have a fierce need to shop, and there is a big difference.

I no longer go out every Saturday and buy things just to buy. I no longer go from store to store to store, picking up things indiscriminately simply because I can. I no longer do this not because I don’t have the money. I no longer do this because I realized why I was doing this, and I no longer have the deep well of emptiness inside of me.

I have moved on. My mother, however, has not. She still thinks of me as that person who shopped and shopped as if my very life depended upon it. I don’t know about life, but definitely sanity. I have tried to tell my mother repeatedly that I am no longer addicted to shopping (and yes, it is possible to be addicted to shopping). I have tried to tell her that I do not spend money without any thought of the consequences.

She, for whatever reason, does not believe me. Hence, the snide comment about a recent large purchase on my part. Why does this bother me so much when I know the truth?

Well consider: How would you feel if you had made a mistake many years ago, and you had learned from that mistake, and you had taken measures to correct that mistake only to have said mistake thrown in your face at any given opportunity?

I can tell you. You would feel like a failure, an abysmal failure.

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.” ~  Siddartha Guatama (Buddha)

"Psyche Opening the Golden Box," by John William Waterhouse (1903, oil on canvas)

I truly believe that I will never really understand my mother, no matter how long either of us lives. She can be loving and generous and kind, but mostly with anyone but me. She will talk trash about me to just about anyone: my spouse, my children, my friends. She will believe anyone else before me.

There are so many little stories from my life that exemplify this, far too many to bring up, but one in particular illustrates my point: The homes in my parents’ neighborhood had septic tanks before the city installed sewage throughout the area. One time, the tank became clogged, and my parents had to call one of those companies that specialize in fixing such problems. My mother told the workers, my father, anyone who would listen that she was certain that I had thrown a bottle of nail polish down the toilet, and that had led to the clog. I was about 9 years old.

Nail polish . . . really? Why? I never even contemplated doing such a thing, even as a child. I mean, to what end? I didn’t have any nail polish of my own, and as far as I can remember, my mother did not paint her nails. Did the polish appear by magic? I protested my innocence, but to no avail. I had already been judged guilty, so that was that.

I hadn’t remembered this incident until a few nights ago when for some reason, it popped into my head. Funny how memory works.

“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”  ~  Siddartha Guatama (Buddha)

"Pandora Atop the Opened Box of Evils," by Frederick Stuart Church

I know that I should not let what my mother said affect me so much, nor should I continue to be surprised when she makes these declarations. But it takes a great deal of self-confidence not to let disparaging words spoken about you affect you, especially when spoken by someone who is supposed to love you in the way that a mother is supposed to love. And self-confidence is something with which I still have a hard time.

At the same time, I know that my mother is a product of her generation, a product of the Great Depression, being the youngest in a family with 12 children, being the daughter of a mother who died when she was only eight, and the daughter of a father who drank. I realize that her life as a child was very hard, and not having her mother definitely affected her ability to show love outwardly.

I try to remind myself of these things when she does something to irk me. It helps, but truthfully, it does not lessen the hurt that I feel. I sound like a petulant child. All that is missing is the stamp of the foot and the protestation that “it’s not fair.” So of the two of us, I try to be the adult. All that being said, it would be so nice if just once I felt, truly felt, that she was not sitting in judgment of me.

All I can do, I suppose, is try to remember not to treat my own family in the same way, to let them know that I am proud of them, to tell them that I love them, and to refrain from interjecting past failures into the present. I hope that one day I do not have to read something written by one of my own children only to find that he or she sees me in the say way that I see my own mother.

Counting to ten doesn’t work. A hot cup of tea helps. Writing about it helps to lessen the sting. Time, healing, and all of that . . . scars remain forever, but my scars are the map of my world, each one a wound healed, a memory filed away, a piece of mortality tasted.

Patience. Is. A. Virtue.

More later. Peace.

Music by REM, “Everybody Hurts”

“What is important must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” ~ Audre Lorde

Girl Grasping Blooms of Thorny Shrub in Snow Covered Landscape by Kay Nielsen

“Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their song instead.” ~ Neil Gaiman

I received a very interesting comment to yesterday’s post. The writer took exception to the quote, “And in the end the words won’t matter/‘Cause in the end nothing stays the same/And in the end dreams just scatter and fall like rain.” The lines were taken from Matt Nathanson’s song, “All We Are,” and I thought that they were appropriate to my section on dreams.  

"Stealers of Light," by Edmund Dulac

But the writer contended that words do matter because “they are the bricks of the imprint which gets built.” He went on to say that we should speak “as if you are seeing dawn.”  What a wonderful comment and such a beautiful sentiment: to speak as if you are “seeing dawn.”  

If we all spoke as if we were seeing dawn, how beautiful language would be. I realize that we cannot always speak as if we are seeing the miracle of dawn or great beauty, but I do agree completely: words do matter. That being said, I chose that particular section of the song to use for my section quote because I also agree with the statement that in the end, words won’t matter. Am I of two minds? Of course, but let me explain.   

We should all speak to one another as if the words matter because words do stay—they reside in memory; they creep into the locked corners of our brain and take up residence, sometimes to be brought back out at inconvenient moments. They insinuate themselves into the very fabric of our souls, the sweetest ones part of the most beautiful patterns. But I am reminded of something that I read somewhere long ago about how people should not wait until the ones they love are dead to tell when how they feel. Words spoken over a grave are for the speaker. That is what I mean when I say that in the end, once someone we love is gone, all that we have to say, should have said, wanted to say—all of that comes to nothing, and the words unsaid become dust on our tongues.  

I know this too well.  

So yes, Manish, words do matter, but in the end, words cannot change the life we have led, how we have treated our friends and our enemies, the things we have said in anger, and the things we have said in love. The end is too late.  

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” ~ Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

"The Fairies Have Their Tiff with the Birds," from Peter Pan by Arthur Rackham

After my bout with violent dreams and vivid dreams, I’m back to not being able to sleep. This morning, after hearing the clock chime 6 a.m., I got out of our bed (Corey’s, mine, and the dogs’) and went into Eamonn’s room and laid upon his futon. His room is dark and cool, and I thought that maybe I would be able to sleep better without the dogs, who were pressed up against all sides of my body, so I lay there in the dark and looked up at Eamonn’s ceiling, where he had put stars that glow in the dark. I thought about when he was dating this one girl with whom he was truly smitten, and he had labeled one star “the first star to the left.” For awhile, he was consumed with Peter Pan, the adult version, not the Disney version.  

I laid there in the dark and realized just how much I miss eldest son. Yes, he drives me crazy, and yes, he is so much like my ex that it is beyond annoying, but he is also my first son, and I remember him sleeping on my chest when he was an infant. He had a stomach disorder that made his sleep fitful, and he used to sleep best on my chest. I would lay there with my hand gently on his back and watch him breathe. I was still so plagued by the loss of Caitlin that I could not rest peacefully unless Eamonn was nearby. When he wasn’t asleep on my chest, he slept in the cradle at the foot of my bed. Our old lab Mokie would sleep under the cradle in protective mode.  

Those were days of great joy for me. Our family seemed to have recovered from the unrecoverable, and we were making our way into life again. That Eamonn did not sleep through the night until he was one year old did not bother me, although I would get curious looks from people who asked if he was sleeping through the night, one of those judgemental parenting questions. After the stomach operation he had when he was only three weeks old, Eamonn had to take several medicines, including a dose during the night, so sleeping all the way through was impossible.  

I would feed him, give him his medicine and then rock him back to sleep in the Bentwood Rocker. Often, I would sing to him softly; he loved “Unchained Melody,” and it never failed to put him back to sleep.  

That is what I was thinking about as I lay there on his very uncomfortable futon, looking up at the stars on his ceiling that were fading as the morning light began to creep into the window. And I finally fell asleep.  

“There is only one page left to write on. I will fill it with words of only one syllable. I love. I have loved. I will love.” ~ Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife

  

“The Star Lovers” by Warwick Goble

Words. Words of love. Words of hate. Words spoken in anger. Words spoken in frustration. Words uttered in helplessness. Words whispered in sorrow. Words are my bane and my lifeblood. They make me whole and allow me to share my innermost thoughts, and they cleave my heart when I allow them to fall from my lips angrily. Words join us as families, communities, societies. And they separate us from the others, those who do not speak the same words. And sometimes, the unspoken words, the gestures—the hands clasped in prayer, the hands crossed over the heart, the clenched hand, the wringing hands, the open hand against the lips—those unspoken words can be comprehended by any onlooker, and we are joined, whether or not we desire it.  

I am my words, all of the words that I have said to my children, to my love, to my parents, my friends, and yes, even my enemies. All of the words that I have put down on paper, have typed with my keyboard. All of those words are the sum of my life, myself, my esse, and my soul. There are words that I regret but cannot take back, and there are words that I should have said, yet I remained silent. Those utterances and those silences also comprise my being. If I am very lucky, when I reach the end of my journey, some of my words will be remembered, and I will have said all of the words I needed to say to all of the people who mattered.  

More words later. Peace be unto you and yours.  

From “A Tree Within”  

The landscape opens its eyes and sits up,
sets out walking followed by its shadow,
it is a stela of dark murmurs
that are the languages of fallen matter,
the wind stops and hears the clamor of the elements,
sand and water talking in low voices,
the howl of pilings as they battle the salt,
the rash confidence of fire,
the soliloquy of ashes,
the interminable conversation of the universe.
Talking with the things and with ourselves
the universe talks to itself:
we are its tongue and ears, its words and silences.
The wind hears what the universe says
and we hear what the wind says,
rustling the submarine foliage of language,
the secret vegetation of the underworld and the undersky:
man dreams the dream of things,
time thinks the dream of men.
  

~ Octavio Paz  

Matt Kearney’s “All I Need”  

  

   

*Images are book illustrations from the Golden Age of Illustration (early 20th C.), including works by Kay Nielsen (Danish), Warwick Goble (British), Edmund Dulac (French), and Arthur Rackham (British).