BootsnAll Travel Network

Losing my bearings

When I chose to retire and move to Portland, I thought I knew, however dimly, what I was doing. I wanted to write full-time. I wanted to be done grading papers written by nineteen-year-olds who didn’t want to write them.  I was worn out by seven-day work-weeks, by short courses I taught during holidays in order to earn extra money, by broken relationships and the relentless difficulty of parenting, and by migraines. Sharply aware that I was on the threshold of “old age” and the dissolution of this mind and body, I wanted some joy and ease before this life was over: time to read, walk, daydream, sit on a park bench in a rose garden. I wanted a room of my own and time to write this autobiographical novel I’ve been composing in the back of my mind since I was seven years old. After a lifetime of Buddhist practice, I thought I was ready to write the answer to the koan, “Who am I?” The first sentence came to me during that ten-day Vipassana meditation course: “I have always wanted to be a saintly person.” It would be a comic epic. As a way of doing “research” for the book, I began in earnest to seek out where this fool who calls herself Kendall came from–who her phantom father was, who her people were, how her pieces fit together. I stumbled into a possible whole new family. Very dramatic, but suddenly I’m stunned into silence. The book disintegrates. I can’t find the central character. She is neither fiction nor non-fiction. She is neither Narcissus nor Goldmund, contemplative nor adventurer, Gentile nor Jew. I look at the pages I’ve written since I came here, and I feel nausea. I’m sick of this story. I feel lonely and displaced. Lost. What am I doing here?

Some wise, patient, sane inner voice tells me this is all part of the process. What process? The process of writing the book? The process of mellowing into the old woman I am coming to be? The process of starting over? The process of “retirement”? What is real in this moment? My little cat is curled up on my legs, purring as I tap the keyboard. I’m cold. I keep the thermostat in this apartment set on 65; the window is slightly open for circulation, and damp cold air curls in through the window and soaks into my bones. My toes are numb, my fingers are a little stiff, my nipples are hard from the chill. I haven’t had anything to eat or drink yet today, and my mouth feels sticky and stale. My bed is unmade. Books are littered all over the apartment: The Holocaust in Latvia; Woody, Cisco & Me (a book about Woody Guthrie, Houston Cisco, and Jim Longhi, who joined the Merchant Marine the year after the man who may have been my grandfather was killed at sea); The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jewish History and Culture; Rachel Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings; Italo Calvino’s autobiograhical essays (his description of an American women’s college reminds me of Smith); and of course Proust…I plug on with his remembrances, although I have come to a full stop with mine. Here are yellow pads with notes, file folders full of paper: passport applications, sailing records. Notes for a family tree trail off into confusion. The trees outside my fifth-floor window have come into full leaf, obscuring my view of the Fremont Bridge and all the people streaming across it on their way to work. I think about my relationships.

Manko, my baby chick, is joining the Army in Houston as I write this. She has her physical today, for which she had to remove the piercings she had in her belly button, tongue, and nose; if nothing else changes in the next week, she will head for boot camp (possibly in South Carolina) next week. Seth is in Canada on the Megadeth tour; I sent him an email saying I’ve found Jake Linn; he answered on the run that he hopes to hear more later. Christopher, in Tucson, just returned from his family vacation in San Diego and sent me pictures of my granddaughter swimming with a dolphin. I sent him the pictures of the man I think was my father, and he wrote back saying, “Holy Shit! I don’t think you need a DNA test, mom. It’s clear to me that I am related to this man.”

And what does it matter? Maybe it’s all pickle juice. Then why am I so stirred by it? What is this strange sense of dissolution that settles over me this cold morning and makes me want to throw away every page I’ve written since I got here?

Contact with my kids is grounding. A reminder of the illusion of identity. As is this blog. As are the emails that are my main source of human contact. But I still feel somehow insubstantial. My book feels stillborn. Nothing seems “true.” Everything is smoke. I’m lost. I stare at images that turn into pixels that turn into meaningless patterns of dark and light. I will go make a cup of tea and pour myself a bowl of cornflakes. I will sit by the window and look out at the utility post and the leaves, and above them the rolling gray sky. In China, ten thousand people are buried in the rubble of one town, after an earthquake that hurled millions of people into crisis. Who can imagine that number of people and the suffering they are experiencing at this moment? That’s “real,” but I can’t take it in. Next to that, “identity” seems frivolous. My gaze drifts up to the mist rolling over Portland, gray on white, white on gray, and the mist itself seems to dissolve into the light of a sky the color of skimmed milk.

Right after I finished writing this post, the newsletter from Upaya (one of my lives not taken) arrived with this epigraph: “The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love and intelligence has nothing to do with any tradition, no matter how ancient or impressive – it has nothing to do with time.  It happens completely on its own when a human being questions, wonders, listens and looks without getting stuck in fear, pleasure and pain.  When self-concern is quiet, in abeyance, heaven and earth are open.”
 – Toni Packer

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5 responses to “Losing my bearings”

  1. Susan says:

    K, I see how you could feel like you’ve been lost and found–and lost again. In your shoes, I would want everything to come together NOW, but you know how that so rarely occurs. Don’t hurt yourself by pushing the river, okay? Love to you,


  2. h sofia says:

    Sounds like a good time to hold a baby! Or at least, you can walk down to the North Park Blocks in front of Powell’s Technical books and watch the kiddies from Emerson School play in the park. We should get together real soon.

  3. Old Crone says:

    Moving is hard. Losing your bearings is even harder. It just takes time to ground yourself in a new place, in new situations. As far as your new found family, I have no doubt that this will be an important piece of your life. It has to be hard, because when you get that excited about something, or at least when I do, I want it to all happen NOW….I don’t have any clue on how to help you with this, except to tell you I’ll keep reading about your adventures, and reveling in your insights!

    You already did help me with this, OC. It’s true–what goes up must come down. Just having natural mood swings, I think. Thanks for understanding. I’m also reveling in your insights every day.

  4. Retired Syd says:

    I wish I had this book in front of me so I could quote it literally, but here’s what I remember in terms of advice. Don’t do any more research! Write the story of you right now, without any more outside input. The story that you tell is true to you, and that’s YOUR story. The reason it’s not sounding “true” to you is that other stuff isn’t your story. It’s stuff you recently stumbled upon.

    Write YOUR story. I want to read it.

    (This is meant to be encouraging–sorry if it sounds like a bunch of babble!)

    It is encouraging, actually, Syd. I get what you’re saying and I’m grateful. It’s clarifying. This helps me to see that the problem is there are two projects going on. There’s the book I’m trying to write: the past. And there’s the me I’m growing into: the present. I’m doing my research for the present project, but the project dealing with the past is less interesting. That’s one thing about writing about your life: the most interesting moment is this moment, because you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. All those old moments–I know how they turned out, so they just aren’t gripping me with the same kind of intensity. Maybe in order to get rolling on that novel again, I need what Wordsworth needed: emotion recollected in tranquillity.

  5. Retired Syd says:

    You are exactly right, they are two different projects. But here’s the thing. I know you know how the old moments turned out, and they aren’t gripping you. But I think they would grip others. The stories that you remember contain something that is universal to others. That’s why you remember them. There is probably an “ah ha!” in there that all of us could relate to.

    Hmmm. Need to mull that over. It’s good of you to say this, and it is what I would have said to any writer I was close to, a year ago. I’d like to be (a) that talented and (b) that generous. Not sure I am, though. At the moment I’ve lost the spark, the drive, the pizzazz, the forward momentum. I’m going to wait around for a bit and see if it comes back. It’s good to know you’re hoping it will, and I appreciate your bullshit meter. Sometimes I fool myself, but I don’t fool you.

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