This morning, I watched the sun rise over the McDowell mountains as I tried to cram a few minutes of meditation in before another long day. I was still planning to get a Spanish lesson in and then get to work before the first meeting despite the fact that I’d only gotten two hours of sleep. I wrote through the night, one of two articles which I had, only hours earlier, committed to write. The relentless drone in my head of the endless list of things to do was intense, but not, unfortunately, unusual. There I am again, my plate so full that savoring anything was out of the question. It was then that I made a radical decision. Wait for it....
No, it was not a decision to increase my anti-anxiety medication, although that might have merit. Nor was it a decision to beg Sandra's forgiveness for more projects, more plans (that will come later). Reflecting on the gentle advice of an old friend to practice tenderness towards myself as much as others, I decided to relax.
This radical notion crossed my mind, and then moved in and started unpacking: What if I really am fine, just as I am? What if I ceased my relentless efforts at self- improvement? My nails are chipped and dry, desperately in need of a manicure; eyes bloodshot; 20 extra pounds not well-distributed but all gathered together on what my son fondly calls my "giant belly”; and I am still smoking despite 20 years of quitting. I am overly enthusiastic and overly involved; there are so many issues about which I care deeply and I often fail to prioritize them well, or to recognize my limits. I can be self-centered, prone to navel-gazing, so absorbed in my own thoughts that I fail to notice my effect on others. Other times, I disappear so deeply into my mind that I fail to notice others at all. I can be judgmental and snarky, intellectually arrogant, and intolerant of what I deem unkind, fearful, or just plain stupid. I am disabled, exhausted and in pain most of the time. But sitting there, watching the mountains absorb the first rays of light, I had the unlikely idea that I might be just fine.
In my defense, I do have a few good qualities; many of which are just a reappraisal of my long list of faults. I am brave and determined and refuse to give up, regardless of how high the stack of odds against me. I am wise in many ways. I am a gifted empath; I connect deeply with others and intuit more than what they can verbalize at that moment. I am funny, irreverent, and try to see every situation, no matter how painful, with lightness and perspective. I am honest, even when I really want to be quiet. I live up to my ideals of integrity, compassion, and kindness. I love my family and friends deeply enough to recognize that whatever modicum of grace I achieve is a reflection of their light. I am the mountain, absorbing their rays.
What would it mean to practice radical self-acceptance? I could be Atlas, gently setting the world down, walking away. Is it the lack of sleep? The effects of meditation? Some sort of brief psychotic state? Isn't it irresponsible to stop trying to be better? Wouldn't I just be lazy? Would I be a useless waste of space, a quitter? Would everything fall apart if I stopped holding it together with my self-criticism, contempt for all of my shortcomings? Who would I be if I stopped striving to meet my own expectations of who I should be?
To be honest, I have no idea who I’d be if I stopped trying to be perfect. But it is increasingly clear to me that being perfect, or attempting to be, only moves me further away from myself. The things that I love; sunrises in the desert, the smells of campfire and incense, deep connection with people who rarely choose to connect with others (two of the four friends I love most in the world are on the autistic spectrum- this says much about me but nothing about them), the smell of puppy breath and babies heads; these are not things that have anything to do with how productive I am at work, how clean my house is, or how well I present my façade to the world.
Six years ago, that I came to a professional event in a powerchair wearing pants with an elastic waistband would have been unthinkable. Two months ago I would have locked myself up rather than allow myself out with raggedy fingernails and eyebrows weeks overdue for waxing. I usually require myself to sneak around to smoke, it is certainly not the image I want to project to my colleagues. Today I just pull up to an ashtray, light up, and wave to colleagues as they hurry by; the next meeting, the next phone call, whatever it is that they believe they have to do. I have decided that, contrary to contemporary public mores, smoking does not indicate that I am a bad person. Contrary to my personal opinion before today, not being groomed like a showdog is no reason to stay home.
Perfect? No. I am no longer interested. In fact the idea has become distinctly boring. I would rather find out what it is like to be me. Consider this my official notice:
I am putting the world down. I am choosing to be free.
It’s sundown now. Behind the mountains the sky is orange, then gold, then an unexpected chartreuse. There are bats, dozens of them. Flying around, as if they are frantic, as if they are looking for something, looking for the light. I forgot that I am afraid of bats. I learned as a child that if they make contact, I would have to get rabies shots. I learned that they are dangerous; the world is dangerous. I am forgetting everything I learned to be afraid of. Just as my body is unlearning how to move, my mind is unlearning fear.
Late last night, or early this morning, I came out to this same balcony, looking for peace from my relentless thoughts. I rolled out in my chair, equipped with my ubiquitous laptop, a bottle of water, and cigarettes. I expected to be alone, as it was the wee hours when other people presumably sleep. Instead I found a woman crying, proclaiming her love to a man who looked like he himself might be asleep. I’m sure that they expected to be alone too, but I needed to be under the dark canvas of stars, a tiny, insignificant speck in the universe, finding my place. I tried to take an unobtrusive spot in a far corner, where I could write and they could continue whatever drama was unfolding. I wrote, she cried, he tried to stay awake. Then she called her mother: “I’M ENGAGED!” After a brief conversation, she reported to her sleepy paramour that her mother was very happy for them, that she knew they would have a lifetime of happiness.
A lifetime of happiness. The start of a new dream; statistically unlikely but every one of us believes at some time that we will beat the odds. Weddings make me cry because the hope and faith expressed so ardently, so honestly at the time, is so wildly implausible. I used to joke with an old friend that the only appropriate toast at weddings would be to raise your glass to “As long as it lasts.” With all that we know, all of the gruesome statistics, inevitable disappointments, and profound suffering that life offers down the road, people still turn towards each other and promise to beat the odds. It is the triumph of connection over logic, faith over fear.
There is a Pow-Wow occurring nearby on the reservation. In the distance I hear chanting, rhythmic stomping, clanging bells on the boots of the dancers. An ancient ritual, the embodiment of resilience, from a people who refused to disappear. Manifest destiny. Greed and ignorance besting life as it had been known. Indigenous people, the original nations, herded into camps, wrapping their children in smallpox blankets to ward off the inevitable. The improbability of survival. The will to live, to believe, to overcome. The miracle of survival, the faith that made it possible, and the dancing that continues, in gratitude and celebration. Human beings are wired for surviving the impossible. Dance, pray, live…LIVE.
It’s written in our DNA, the will to keep going when the world itself is no longer recognizable.
Just before the last molecule of light descended behind the mountains, the bats all disappeared. Just like that: They were everywhere, and then they were gone. How do bats know, that it is the very last moment? Where do they go? I guess that is the way it is with all of us. We are here for the sunrise, or the sunset, or the time in between. Then, without warning, a primal instinct kicks in and we disappear; an hour, or a day, sometimes a lifetime. We are here, against every odd, willing ourselves into the unknown.
Who I think I am, my infantile grasping at how I want things to be, it is all so unnecessary, so futile, so strange. I am a star, shooting across the night sky. That I can convince myself otherwise is a peculiar human arrogance. This is my instant on this strange little planet. This is the body I got, the opportunity of many lifetimes. This, right now, is the only “me” that exists. This is my instance; I resolve not to waste one more second on everything that doesn’t matter. Tenderness, acceptance, faith—the only way through, the only true things.
I am putting down the weight of the world now; the weight of all of my expectations, the burden of how I think things should be. I am choosing freedom.