2014 was not a good year, in the traditional sense, but it was a powerfully transformative one. My evolving relationship with gratitude has brought me to the beginning of 2015 with a lot of things to be grateful for. Here are some of them:
Jasper has finally allowed himself to snuggle again. With what will in future years be remembered as legendary stubbornness, he refused to let me hug or kiss him for nine months. He found a workaround in November, when he instigated a game I’ll call Leukemia Patient. This game is in some ways remarkably similar to Funeral, a game he played when he was two, and may be taken as evidence that personality is stable over time.
“I don’t feel so good,” he says during the ‘game.’ He lolls on my bed with a pained expression on his face.
“You feel fine,” I say briskly.
“What did the doctor say?” he whispers pathetically, eyes closed, breathing labored.
“The doctor said you’re fine,” I say.
He then pretends to choke and die, and lies still. My role is to throw my body onto his, holding him in my arms, kissing him frantically and calling his name. I attempt to revive him, and succeed, for a second. His eyes open wide and he sits up, gasping for breath, until after a moment or two he falls back into the bed again.
“I don’t feel so good,” he says, and we reenact the scene again, and again.
Sometime in December he relented completely; not, he said, because he has forgiven me anything, but because he has accepted the truth of what I told him several months ago: everyone needs physical touch and affection, and that it would make him feel better, even if it came from me. He’s so much bigger than he was when he became a refusenik that it was awkward at first to even know how to hold him, but we’re working it out. A corollary: after nine months of calling me “Mom,” that formal, distancing moniker, I have been restored, for the moment, to “Mommy.” My heart is full.
A few days before Christmas I stopped into a few of the stores on Hawthorne looking for a gift. At the card/gift store Presents of Mind, I was startled to discover that owls have become the motif of Christmas cards, gift bags, wrapping paper and gift tags. Two years ago I was emailing people in the UK trying to get a set of snowy owl cards, and now I could outfit myself for the year with thematically unified paper goods just by popping into the store down the street. Balthazar, is that you?
Lately I have been meditating. Which is like saying I have been hand-sewing Edwardian costumes for my vintage doll collection, or have begun making and bottling my own vinegar to sell at bluegrass festivals. If you’ve known me for a long time you might have to ask if I’m feeling OK, in which case I would answer, yes and no.
Around the time that I was habitually waking up in a panic in the middle of the night, worrying about the house, and money, and relationships, my roommate Laura was about to begin Oprah and Deepak’s 21-day free meditation challenge. She suggested that I do it too. Oprah and Deepak! The cynic, the skeptic, rebelled.
My approach to matters psychological has always been analytical and research-based, because that’s what comes most easily to me. I’ve talked. A lot. I’ve read The Drama of the Gifted Child. I’ve read Trapped in the Mirror. I’ve read Radical Acceptance. But I always ignored the exercises at the end of each chapter because that would have involved a practice that bypassed the thinking mind. What good would that be, the thinking mind wanted to know. Aren’t I in charge here? Nothing can happen without me, right?
Neocortex, meet your limbic system.
Meditation has been shown to have all kinds of positive effects: it reduces high blood pressure, increases immune function, and improves concentration, memory and focus. Studies have shown that meditation can actually preserve the length of telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. Longer telomeres are associated with better health, shorter ones with diseases like cancer and heart disease.
The part that I was most interested in, though, was the fact that meditation is supposed to weaken certain neural connections in the medial prefrontal cortex that are associated with fear, anxiety and stress. If anyone needs those channels filled in and other channels created, it would be me. So I told my thinking brain to shut up, and tried twenty minutes of daily guided meditation.
It’s been like that dream when you discover a door in your house that leads to a wing you didn’t even know was there. How come no one ever told me I had a library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and gleaming wooden ladders, and all these extra bedrooms with parquet floors and billowy silk curtains like a posh Viennese hotel? I could have had some fantastic parties, or at least more out of town guests. Well, now I know.
I volunteered recently at the Write Around Portland community reading. All of those who had participated in a WRAP writing workshop were invited to come and read: homeless women, elderly men, patients in the trauma unit at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital, recovering addicts. I worked the check-in desk, signing in readers and handing them their copy of the printed anthology. Then, when everyone had been checked in, I got to sit in the hall and listen.
A teenage girl stepped up to the microphone, holding her small daughter in her arms. She buried her face in the child’s hair. The silence grew painful as we waited for her to begin. She was obviously terrified. At last she mumbled a few syllables, but then she stopped. She stood there for a few more agonizing moments. I felt the gathered crowd’s sympathy, but maybe she couldn’t. She ran off the stage and out the side door.
She reappeared many readers later. This time she had a friend on either side, holding her up. Her daughter was still draped over her shoulder. Haltingly, she read. A poem about that child, and the electrifying, consuming love she felt for her. And I was in tears.
I was raised to hold myself apart. What had I to do with a homeless teenage mother but offer her my patronizing charity? But I am not that person anymore. When I began volunteering I wanted to facilitate a writing workshop but feared I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Now I truly believe that I can. I no longer feel separate at all.
I gave my roommate Laura the book Daring Greatly for Christmas. It’s by the research professor Brene Brown, whose work focuses on vulnerability as the key to living a wholehearted life. It was a self-serving gift because I wanted to read it too. While she was visiting family in Idaho I started it. At one point Brown quotes the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit:
“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'
'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'
'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
Then I started to cry. Because I’ve written about the Skin Horse before. It’s an important symbol to me. All the things I’ve intuited and been working on for almost three years now are weaving together to create a strong fabric that can support my weight.
I look forward to that in 2015.