Age of Matter, Age of Energy
And there we were, in a kind of harmony; and the evening was so beautiful, that it made a pain in my heart, as when you cannot tell whether you are happy or sad; and I thought that if I could have a wish, it would be that nothing would ever change, and we could stay that way forever. – Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Today I said goodbye to my friend Carrie, who brought a burst of hope and calm into our house for two days, a much-needed shot of harmony. We went for a hike in the strangely cold and overcast weather, and I found myself feeling hopeful and frightened at the end of it, with Ronan sacked out in the front pack and his hands pressed to my stomach. He’s still so present physically, and sometimes the soft bulk of him, his solid weight and cellulite thighs, make me jump ahead to the time when my arms will be empty. Carrie’s presence was the antidote: being with someone who knows and loves you, someone who can see you from the outside-in (and still like you!), is maybe the greatest gift any grieving parent – or person – can expect. Carrie and I used to take long walks in Provincetown, talking and losing track of time so that we’d be famished and freezing when we got back to town, the stores closing and the sun going down. Yesterday I wish we could have hiked up a million mountains, always moving, never tired.
This week I met a woman who told me that I needed help along my journey. She talked about what it means to be in this world, at this moment, at this particular time and to both practice and experience healing. “No more individualism,” she warned. “The time for that is over.” Her words resonated with me, and not just on an intellectual level. I thought: I already have the help. (See above.) The key is to access that collective power, to harness it, and I am still learning how to do this. Part of it is cultivating an ability to rest in what is an impossible, thorny place: Ronan is dying and he is irreplaceable. He is mine and this stupid disease is taking him away. I am his mother and there’s nothing I can do to save him. Staying still in this new and terrible unknown requires no action – only waiting — because there is no goal or solution and nothing to strive for. There is only today and then tomorrow and then the next day.
In the words of Grace, a convicted killer with a tortured past and the heroine of Margaret Atwood’s (as usual) stunning and smart novel, Alias Grace: “It’s the middle of the night, but time keeps going on, and it also goes round and around, like the sun and the moon on the tall clock in the parlour. Soon it will be daybreak. Soon the day will break. I can’t stop it from breaking in the same way it always does, and then from lying there broken; always the same day, which comes around again like clockwork. It begins with the day before the day before, and then the day before, and then it’s the day itself…The breaking day.” Time, time, time: our enemy, and the only friend we have. We need it, long for it, fear it, loathe it, dream about it.
Coming to peace with “non-action” might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Grace again: “To go from a familiar thing, however undesirable, into the unknown, is always a matter for apprehension, and I suppose that is why so many people are afraid to die.” No shit. I’m used to doing and moving. Now I’m waiting and thinking. Writing. Crawling up over the edge of each breaking day, broken but ready for action. Aching with fear and also brimming with the bright certainty of fearlessness. Fueled by a new ambition: to be still, to consider, to examine. It’s against my nature, but my nature is changing. I’m living an oddly liturgical life: examining grief with thought, word, and – this weekend at least – deed, which resulted in a hell of a lot of movement.
This past weekend at the Ronan-a-thon hosted by Amy Dixon and Jennifer Pastiloff, I was given the opportunity to sweat and stretch and move and cry in honor of my son and I didn’t do it alone. I’ve gotten a lot of guff (and much of it from literary types who may think it’s a waste of time to take a spin class when you could be punching out chapters of The Next Great American Novel, which, if the publishing industry has anything to say about it, will probably be written by a white guy under 35 living in Brooklyn anyway) about my penchant for exercise, which yes, is an obsession, yes, is an addiction, and yes, can be a crutch. But it is also recommended on a daily basis by Dr. Oz, the American Academy of Doctors of This That or the Other Organ, and probably even by the crackpot, pseudo life fixer/cloying emotional coach, Dr. Phil.
I took the same series of spin and yoga classes for four years in Santa Monica, and mostly with the same group of women. We obsessively claimed our bikes next to one another; we had songs we loved and other songs we rolled our eyes about; we loaned each other socks and offered swigs from water bottles; we were tirelessly coached by the indefatigable Amy to the sound of Metallica and Journey and Bon Jovi, and then relaxed and stretched by the poetic instruction of Jen and her magical lavender oils and head massages. We didn’t discuss the gritty particulars of our personal lives, and in that sense we were like stereotypical “guy friends” who like to do things together rather than talk about feelings/relationships/life/other complications. Adult play dates, but without the cocktails or conversation. We groaned about being asked to do yet another set of sit-ups. We chanted Om and then flopped onto our yoga mats. Like all self-respecting gym-rats, we then crawled to the showers, feeling spent and stinky, before going on our individual merry or not-so-merry ways. Until this weekend I knew very little about the present realities of these women, let alone their old stories, their old wounds.
When Ronan was diagnosed, some of my friends ran from it and I guess some of them are still running. Months later some admitted that they didn’t know what to say, how to respond, and I understand this reaction as deeply as I have trouble forgiving it. My friends from the gym, however, came right at me: with emails, an envelope full of checks, concerned calls and texts. I was surprised at first, but then I realized that I viewed these connections as if they were superficial, as many of my “why are you going to the gym when you could be thinking (i.e, doing something important)?” friends casually assumed.
But consider this: I saw these women almost every day for four years. I rode and did push-ups with them through one terrible heartbreak, one joyful romance followed by a wedding, and during every day of my pregnancy, up until the day I delivered Ronan. My friend Chris, when I tell him that in some sense Ronan died for me on the day of his diagnosis, warns me about the grief to come when my son is physically gone. “You carried him for 9 months,” he said, and as strange as it might be to say, so did the women in that gym. No, we weren’t having some deep intellectual experience, but we were having an experience. The difference? It was embodied. It was, in a sense, mindless. What a relief.
I don’t know why I haven’t defended my exercise life more emphatically before. Some of my most ecstatic, profound experiences (in addition to some of the most terrifying) have been lived in the body. I vividly remember the first expert run I skied in Winter Park in the early 80s. Moguls like giant fists as high as my waist, the bottom of the hill an icy slide straight to the bottom. I was sweating even before I shot off the top of the mountain, my coach screaming at me (but in the nicest and most supportive way) that I was ready to do this and if I believed I would finish without breaking my neck. My heartbeat swished frantically in my ears; my heart itself was a rocket burning in my chest, and my leg and arms went to jelly and then to steel and then back again over each hump. On and on, until the end of the run, and when I looked up and saw where I had come from, I didn’t think “look what I can do,” which has a built-in smugness and seems to be the guiding principle of disabled sports (and of all competitive sports, actually), but I observed what my body could feel and experience in that moment. The feeling was freedom — of the most profound kind. You know what else? During that entire twenty minutes I didn’t have a single thought, and I’ve probably never been happier. Exercise as an experience, as the joy of embodiment.
Why are we so afraid of the body? Is it because it’s a mess, unpredictable, mortal, unreliable? We take pains to perfect it, to keep it healthy, but we probably wouldn’t go to such extremes if we weren’t scared to death to lose it. A paradox: we pretend we don’t need it, that it’s our minds that matter, and yet the body is the thing we can’t ignore and that knocks our thinking minds flat to the floor.
I’ve always found the phrase “My heart goes out to you” a bit maudlin, as (ever a Lutheran!) I’ve often visualized it in a literal way; a dripping, pulsing, beating organ pushing through the chest of a person – messy, bloody, uncouth, unwanted and unseemly. It feels like bragging, as if you could really step outside of yourself that deeply in order to help someone else. It’s gross and embarrassing. It’s a scary scene from Alien. Or is it? Even four-year-olds know that Everybody Poops, thanks to the bestselling children’s book, but why are adults so slow in accepting this knowledge that we have bodies that are, in every significant way, uncontrollable? Think about it: Ronan’s body lacks a single dopey enzyme – an enzyme! – and this will kill him. It’s ludicrous and brutal.
During my four-year writer’s block in Los Angeles, I thought I needed to leave the body in order to figure out what the hell was going on with my writing life. I needed to chuck the monkey mind, the constant cycling, the endless thoughts. So during a three-month sabbatical from teaching, I took a meditation course in Santa Monica. The teacher annoyed me, in part because rather than letting us practice meditation he seemed intent on talking about the electro-magnetic forces at work in the universe (something about comets?) and the new world order, of which we’d all be taking part whether we liked it or not. Frankly, I thought he was full of shit, especially when I was trying to sit quietly for 20 minutes while imagining a lit candle floating in front of my third eye, which I still wasn’t certain I’d successfully located. “We are moving from the age of energy, into the age of matter,” he postulated. “It’s these living bodies that will save us.” Okay, maybe salvation is a stretch, but several years later I think he may have had a point.
Flying into Los Angeles, I saw that massive grid, the straight lines of boxy houses (each worth a million at least!) with their swimming pools like blinking blue eyes. When I touched down, I had just read this line from the novel Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, a novel about the Plague of the 1600s, and also about what happens to people – how they twist and bloom – during catastrophe. “These memories of happiness are fleeting things, reflections in a stream, glimpsed all broken for a second and then swept away in the current of grief that is our life now. I can’t say that I ever feel what it felt like then, when I was happy. But sometimes something will touch the place where that feeling was, a touch as slight and swift as the brush of a moth’s wing in the dark.” I felt the joy of familiarity at the sight of palm trees and snarls of traffic. I got in my rental car, sped onto the 405 freeway – which was already becoming a parking lot at 3 pm – and cranked up the cheesiest, bubble-gum hip-hop pulsating rhythm music I could find. I drove with all the windows rolled down and used my horn at least three times on the short drive south to Long Beach. The shimmering concrete, the fancy cars, the sun sun sun, the skyline muddled by pollution, the deceptive sea-salt smell of the air ranked as some of the unhealthiest in the nation. I didn’t care. I ate up that smell of burning asphalt and overcrowded, overindulged West Coast city. I’ve been nomadic all my life, rootless, and I always savor these brief glimpses of what it feels like to be grounded. I was on my way to David and Lisa’s, to mojitos in a sun-drenched bar, to conversation and support and kebabs and expensive brandy. One of my homes.
There is power in a gathering, big or small. It’s why houses of worship exist. It’s why we have parties to celebrate, to mourn, to just be. At the beginning of the Ronan-a-thon, Amy asked us to imagine a collective heartbeat. For over an hour, a room full of sweating bodies, pounding blood, and a united embodied intelligence focused on my son. (And oh so many power ballads and Springsteen. Don’t Stop Believin’! Never!) We were not riding for a cure because there isn’t one; we were riding for Ronan’s life. A celebration. Time stopped – painfully and beautifully. A crystalline moment walloped right down in the middle of a pile of tumult. And in the next hour, when Jen asked us to open our hearts out wide for a baby that many of the people practicing that night had never met as a singer filled the room with her sweet, full voice, I thought: this might be what it’s like to be Ronan. Every moment is a wonder because every moment is, in a sense, distilled. Stopped. Each moment is out of time, with no memory attached, and with only the body as the guide, the gauge of experience. I learned that you don’t need to know much about another person’s grief in order to share it and help him or her bear it. People can be amazing and resilient and giving when they don’t have to be. Hearts can pound right out of bodies; they can move. It’s not gross or alien or weird at all: it’s human.
More than anything else, I felt accompanied, and I still do. People love you, Abbe said. Feel it. And I did. I could accept it. Me, with all my words, so many words, so many I can’t keep up with them, and here were people, in the sweat and silence and effort who could just stay there. They could cry for Ronan when I could not. There was a fullness in that emptiness, a feeling of life-in-death, finally, when so many days feel like the reverse. We went out for drinks and we laughed and I learned about these women I had sweated with for four years – things I didn’t expect, both the funny and the painful. I think special is an overused word, but it was a special night.
Leaving Los Angeles the ships looked frozen in the water and the waves were like chalk marks drawn on the surface. Flying over New Mexico the plane hung in the air and the wing shuddered still for a moment despite the notorious winds sheering off the Sangre de Cristo mountains. A maze of empty roads twisted into land and sky. Descending into the home-for-now and back into the situation of my life, which, for the next few years, will no doubt feel a bit like living on a foreign planet. The planet of grief. One example: a few days ago Rick had the sad task of “triaging” Ronan’s toys; we decided to put the ones he can’t use in storage, out of sight. Sitting on the porch I could hear the crunch of plastic, the occasional twitter of a sing song rhyme (Yankee Doodle; The Itsy Bitsy Spider; Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) from one of the singing trucks or monkeys or blocks. Just another task we never expected we’d be asked to do. I wanted to scream. Like Anna, the heroine of Brooks’s novel who loses both her sons to the Plague: “I knew that it was true that fear of losing him had marched beside that love, every moment of the short time I had him with me.”
Grief isn’t just an alternative universe, it’s the nastiest, stinkiest, cattiest, meaner-than-a-slighted-and-jealous-mean-girl snake. It’s not a cute garden snake that slithers under rocks and looks, in its own snakish way, cuddly. Grief is a cobra. It is fierce, it hides, lurks, strikes, and it can be brutal or even fatal. And it is lived in the body; it can be seen and felt and touched. It is not an intellectual experience, but a bodily one. As Basho says:
Of this painful world.
Grief can be seen, felt, touch, and tasted. Plucked. Chewed. It is not an intellectual matter. My mind is trying to keep my heart together, to steel it, when maybe I should just let it break slowly apart. A broken heart is still a useful one because it’s full of room. It has no certainty. Jen gave me a clear, white rock that is solid but also transparent in places. The color breaks in the middle, moving from white to gray, but the shape held. It holds. Good old Yeats got it wrong; the center can hold, especially when it doesn’t have a choice.
“In a new country, friends become old friends very quickly” (Brooks). That is certainly true of the country of grief, the universe of loss. But what I learned this weekend is that when you touch down in that space, trembling and uncertain and needy, you can meet people you’ve known for a long time, but it’s like meeting them again for the first time. People who will keep putting their hearts out even when it costs them. Collective heartbeat. The Age of Matter. Days break and continue. They cannot be cured, only endured, and that can only be done in a group, in the body, where the heart is, the place from which it moves out. And move it does.
Atwood’s lonely narrator – neglected, condemned, analyzed, finds a segment of her own experience that is hers alone. It isn’t pretty, but it’s hers. “I lay there in the darkness…and in my ears I could hear my own heart, trudging and trudging, as if on a long and weary road that I was doomed to walk along whether I wanted to or not, and who could tell when I would get to the end of it.” During the Ronan-a-thon I felt my heartbeat in my ears the way I heard it for the first time as a young, ambitious downhill skier. Pure, uncomplicated elation. The energy was palpable and also mysterious, a wonder. And there was relief, too, in the knowledge that the collective heartbeat of a group of people could carry me without saying a word.
The road is doomed, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s an end to it. And there are people standing along it, pouring out whatever they have to give. Energy, yes, but from real people living in real bodies. This day and then the next. The Age of Matter and the Age of Energy.