I’ve been meaning to write a thing here for many months, but a Bermuda Triangle of compunctions, scattered attention, and incredible busyness has prevented me from getting anywhere.
I am not exaggerating when I say that this year has been the biggest year of my life. I did two things I never imagined I would even want to do: I got engaged and I applied for a doctoral program. More than a thousand people all over the world now own my artwork, too, the Cheimonette Tarot deck. I get little notes from them from time to time, telling me how much my art means to them. I also moved three or four times, depending on how you count it, made many new friends, lost a few, and recovered from what I can truthfully say was the most terrible time I’ve ever experienced. Trauma is strange. There are these weird phases of confusion, denial, hectic energy, empowerment, terror, depression, and regression. There was also a little anger. I guess for most people, there’s normally a lot of it after a traumatic event, but I find it hard to hold onto anger. It’s so easy for me to see the other sides of a situation, and even when I have been treated unjustly and unkindly, I can see the reasons behind it, and anger quickly fades into sadness and compassion.
Like many things, compassion can work for you and against you. Sometimes both at once.
Today I found out that a wonderful man who I have known since I was 18 years old died last year, almost at the same time my life blew up. I found out because I wrote him to invite him to my wedding. His name was George Hudson, and he was the head of the English department at Colgate University. He led a student group to Japan every year, and had wanted to take me to see the Japanese gardens. He led tours over the Swiss Alps for the Smithsonian. He was in the John Donne Society. He had a son he loved. He was a big, avuncular man with a beard, who regularly made the 3-hour drive to take me out to dinner when I went to Cornell for graduate school. I wrote him about my relationship problems, my confusion about what to do with my life, my adventures, everything. He saw me grow up. He was always interested in what I had to say, and he believed in my abilities as a writer and as an artist. I really, really loved him, and it hurts so much that I never got to say goodbye.
Today some friends of mine had a baby, and another friend announced her pregnancy. A landscape architecture firm I interviewed at in 2010 just called up out of the blue and offered me a job. Mikolaj and I are talking about when to have children, and my beloved father, who has had too little happiness in his life, is 85 years old, and I am 35 years old, and sometimes I have this cold, twisted feeling in my middle that it’s too late for me, somehow, to find all this happiness: my life partner, my life’s profession, my future, but I have.
In the beginning, I lived nowhere.
I slept in the beds and guest-beds of friends.
I had a home, but I couldn’t go back there anymore, and by the New Year I knew it.
People I had trusted and loved had hurt me very badly indeed.
And no matter how I tried, it seemed there was nothing I could do to avoid hurting them when I left.
I was feeling strong and brave, but I wasn’t sleeping.
I had been within shouting distance of having a nervous breakdown.
Months later, when I had a place to live, I slept.
I could do nothing. I hardly knew who I was. I laid in bed staring at the steel ceiling.
We travelled. We went to Sweden, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam.
We travelled to New Hampshire to visit my best friend.
We moved into a tiny room in an artist’s warehouse together.
We travelled to Australia.
We travelled to Germany, Ireland, England, and New York.
We signed a lease on a beautiful apartment in Palo Alto together.
Somewhere in there we got engaged, and my parents, to my great amazement, were overjoyed.
I’d always been proudly independent, but I knew I needed help. I needed a relationship I could rely on. I needed to do something meaningful with my knowledge, talents, and energy. These things crystallized around me with extraordinary, almost unbelievable rapidity. In almost no time at all, my whole life had transformed.
The hunger for experience is strong. It carries us to the far corners of the universe, if we let it.
Are we running away from happiness, and don’t know it? Maybe it’s not really happiness if we run towards it.
The flight from the familiar world can last a long time.
Sooner or later, we run up against danger. I had always felt like nothing could really hurt me. Like, not really. Not lastingly, anyway. I had gone to a middle school where I was bullied and emotionally abused by the teachers. I had had my brushes with death and heartbreak. Each time I had recovered myself with amazing resilience. Last year, I came up against something that seriously hurt me. I am not okay. I will be okay, and I know it, but for a while, it broke me as nothing had ever done before.
In the belly of the Whale, Jonah lifted up his voice in despair.
That empty darkness of the wishing well is a lacuna, where stars might be born, where life might at any moment arise from the black, primordial sea.
The thing about trauma is that it overlays itself with your own terrible past. Trauma makes the monsters even more terrible than they really are, and however you have learned to cope with deep wounds is what you’re stuck with. If you’re lucky, you make it through with your wits about you. Overlaid trauma is actually kind of useful, because then you get to heal all your wounds at once. One way or another, eventually, after a much longer time than you wanted, the monster’s shell breaks, and you look inside and find,
There are no monsters.
The whale is really a lacuna, and it can suddenly bloom with life, or it can swallow you whole. Or both, in my case.
In a way, the emptiness is its own kind of monster.
And if no life blooms there, get the hell away. You’re not a god, after all. Let it go.
Thank you for liking my stupid English essays, Professor Hudson. I wish I could knock on your office door one last time, and tell you how my life turned upside down in 2014. I wish you could come to my wedding, and welcome me into the world of Stuffy People Who Have Doctoral Degrees with your wisdom and your good humor, and tell me stories about your Bernese Mountain Dog and your amazing son and your life’s adventures.
It is better to be free than to be happy, we said, and experience is its own reward.
Thank you. I am going to miss you so much.
“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.”
—Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and an Auschwitz survivor, who lost everything it is possible for a person to lose. “Man’s Search for Meaning”