Hiding out in the past

 

I’ve been writing my memoir for three years. It seems like forever until I think about the 67 years it took me to live it.

On Tuesday, September 19th, 2017, at 11:30 p.m. Bali time, after once again reading through the entire 99,327 word manuscript, I deleted an unnecessary adjective on page 181, took a weary breath, and hit send. A kind woman in New York City will take a look at it. She’s been in the publishing industry for a long time. The fate of my labors hangs on her advice.

I didn’t anticipate the feelings that would arise in the absence of that project. I expected relief and little else. There’s been a little relief and a lot else. Every morning for the past three years I’ve awakened knowing I had work to do. September 20th, dawned with an entire day empty. That’s how it felt: empty. The truth is, I’m retired. Every hour is mine to fill or not in any way I choose. But I’d committed the previous thirty-six months to writing, and that gave my life focus. Finished now, at least for the moment, what would I do with all that available time?

Before I could swing my legs over the side of the bed for morning ablutions, a realization hit: I was back in the present. I’d spent three years reliving the past. I don’t mean remembering – remembering is passive. Reliving is active involvement, re-experiencing, re-feeling, bringing up old emotions to craft into words so future readers can connect with something real. Sending the manuscript on its way detached me from that former time and catapulted me into the present.

A huge portion of mental real estate was wiped clean. My mind, scrubbed and shiny, felt new. The sensation expanded throughout my body. It made sense. The tens of thousands of words I’d dredged up to tell my story had been at the expense of every nerve and cell where traumas were stored. My entire being had existed in the past for the duration of the writing, and now I was free.

The present is a new experience, and I’m not yet altogether comfortable with it. Although much of the past was unpleasant, it was familiar. I could always duck into it, hide for days believing that I was working – writing – which I was. I was also healing. Mucking around in those stories, retelling them, gave me the opportunity to see things in a different light. In so doing, wounds healed. But at the same time, I was stuck there, using the past as a buffer to cushion myself from – from what?

From getting old. Yes. From the very real, very present evidence of encroaching old age. To be fully present means accepting who I am now. I’ve heard many mature adults say that inside they still feel sixteen, or twenty-five. I used to say the same. But writing the memoir has brought me current. I’ve lived those years, twice. I’ve learned the lessons, finally, and have earned the earmarks of the elder: sags, wrinkles, and wisdom, one would hope!

There have been other shifts like this, seismic upheavals that heralded a new way of being, and all have come through writing. It’s a profound tool for self-discovery, and writing memoir is the ultimate challenge. For me, reliving my life through memoir accomplished what the first incarnation hadn’t: I grew up. But I’m not so adult as to pass on a pair of totally outrageous earrings at the Smile Shop – aren’t they great?!

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101 Breaths

Nine eleven.

Those numbers, in that order, will forever mean something more than just two numbers spoken together.

It was early morning. I was driving my youngest daughter to school. We had the car radio on and the program was interrupted. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I remember thinking that something in the traffic control tower must have gone terribly wrong. Within moments, another plane hit.

I had been in New York two weeks earlier with middle daughter, Joy, helping her move into the dorm at FIT in Manhattan. Now I dialed and redialed her number. Nothing.

By the time I got to work a third plane had careened into the Pentagon. My cousin worked there. My daughter still didn’t answer.

Twelve years later, can it be? It’s over a decade, but still fresh, still a terror of the heart. Both my daughter and my cousin were unharmed. Many others were less fortunate.

This morning I sat in meditation. I couldn’t still the thoughts until one idea caught my attention. It said, “Take 101 breaths to cleanse the heart.” I gulped a lungful of air and expelled it slowly, tightening the stomach muscles until the last wisp of it left my nostrils. Then slowly, methodically, I counted each deep inhale and elongated exhale, one hundred and one times, remembering and letting go.

Justin Lane/Pool/Getty Image

Justin Lane/Pool/Getty Image

Breathwork, or pranayama in yoga circles, brings harmony to the body, mind, and spirit. My body knew what was needed and sent the subtle message to me in the form of a thought.

The breaths completed, I sat in gratitude, the heaviness of those memories lifted. I honored the losses in a way that didn’t consume me.

Once again the body has taught me a valuable lesson. When dealing with too much emotion…101 breaths.

Battling the Terrors

My past frightens me. It is a long, arduous trek through unconsciousness. So much of it seems to have happened to someone else. In all fairness, I should have been institutionalized long ago. I should have cracked. But I was lucky. I perfected a serene, composed exterior. No matter what kind of hell was breaking loose just below the surface, it was my secret. No one ever knew, no one but me.

I rarely tell my life story. When I do, people are aghast. Some refuse to believe me. Some are awed. But all listen unaware of their gaping jaws. The things that are easy to reveal, the five marriages and five divorces, are startling enough without getting into the more disturbing details. “You seem so normal,” they say. I smile, serenely, “I am,” I reply.

Trauma remains in the body. No matter how good a person is at coping with life and covering up the scars, trauma lurks in cell memory. It can manifest as depression, panic attacks, or hundreds of other psychological disorders that keep therapists in business. There were times when the roar of terror and hopelessness in my ears threatened to tear me apart. But I have always seen myself as a happy person. Terror and hopelessness are unacceptable to my self-image. Writing became my salvation. I could scream the outrage into poetry or prose, pound it out on the keyboard turning the insanity into something manageable. But ‘manageable’ was merely survival. I needed to believe there was more to life than that.

Then three things happened almost simultaneously. I began doing Qigong meditation. It quieted and focused my mind. I developed a way of writing that took me behind the scenes in my psyche. I learned my truth. And I made yoga a daily practice. Yoga opened my heart. I’ll never forget the moment I first saw myself with compassion. I felt an outpouring of love for the brave soul who had  willed herself through life, raised three daughters, owned businesses, worked so very hard to be perfect while neatly, in quietly civilized fashion, battled the terrors within. I made a commitment that day to her. It was a promise to pursue the joyous journey no matter what. It was an intention let loose in the universe. I had no idea what metaphysical magic I had put in motion.

But any of you who have been following my blog have an inkling of the results of that promise. I have achieved what few are able to in this lifetime, bliss, in giant portions. I live in a place that nurtures and supports my journey. And the terrors? They are being squeezed out. I love the Leonard Cohen lyrics, “there’s a crack, a crack, in everything…that’s how the light gets in…” My tightly held perfection has cracked wide open and light is pouring in. Natural light. Healthy light. And when the little terrors poke their ugly heads out, they’re zapped!

 

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