How to hold everything — including the past and the future — in the golden chalice of be-here-now
I don’t know how, to be honest. Do you?
I never used to even think about the past, but lately it seems I have been shoved in the direction of coming to terms with it. One such shove was this retyping (and reading as I typed) of a novel I wrote over 30 years ago, one that never got published but was responsible for getting me an agent who eventually did sell two other novels for me.
Dreaming of La Sal (whose original title is lost) was really about a dream I had, a dream to open a roadside stand with a man I loved. I based the character Max on him, and, some years later, I based two more characters on him. My husband never read my books. A writer himself, I’m unsure he ever came to terms with my doing what he wanted to do. For years, he collected ideas and details for a story he eventually wanted to write, usually thinking about it in the bathtub, the only man-cave he really ever had besides the great and extensive outdoors.
Some years later, after I’d started writing personal essays instead of more novels (too time consuming, too much of a gamble, and I wasn’t smart enough to crank them out), he was diagnosed with melanoma. My daughter was 17. Our marriage was broken.
And part of my journey was leaving him within the 18 months he was sick. Even writing this is so hard, I keep trying to backspace out of it. But I left. I left because during parts of his illness I saw him open and let life in; and then just when I though we were transforming as a couple, he’d close back up. He was a reserved guy to begin with, and I tended to be pushy, especially in comparison. So: with zero wherewithal to go forward, one morning I woke up and told him it wasn’t working and I’d figure out where to go.
When I think back on leaving my husband and daughter in the house and finding a spot where I could be alone, it breaks my heart. How could I have done it? Obviously, it felt like there was simply no choice. But what I discovered in the six months I was gone from my home was not what I expected to discover. What I discovered about us was something so basic, it seemed ridiculously so.
We are, each of us in a marriage, fifty percent of what’s going on, right or wrong, hard or easy. That’s what I learned. With this in my mind and my heart, I opened to much less expectation and reconciliation and there was hope for our future together. That’s, however, when the nasty cancer really set in, and I had to move back home to take care of him during the last months of his life. In that short span, all dysfunction was put aside, and, in my serving and his being served, some healing occurred.
What I have been discovering ever since he died is how much I have to learn about being an adult in a relationship, about owning what’s mine, recognizing where I am, and staying as far away as possible from Grass is Greener syndrome. I recognize the young child in me, still trying to get attention and slamming interior doors with a solid, if silent, “Fine, then.”
I am realizing now, after a return to my novel written so many years ago, that one of the dangers of nostalgia is the feeling of loss we assume is at its core. Nostalgia’s cohorts, after all, tend to be wistfulness and longing. Those were the good old days, right? Well, no, not completely. By these micro-knee-jerk reactions inherent in nostalgia, we effectively cut off its sweet side. The assimilation of all the joy we felt and allowing ourselves to reconnect to that and to all the just plain what-it-wasness of then is effectively shut down by the pain we assume must be inherent.
Every time I savor a beautiful and sweet moment from yesterday or five years ago or 25, I do something profoundly good for my body, mind and spirit. I replenish and savor and feel the hologram of time, the great mystery of life. Why would I not take advantage of this, rather than shut it all down because of loss I’ve felt?
So much has happened since I sat down with my dad’s old computer in the ramshackle house on West Pacific Street in Telluride in the mid 80s — that big boxy beige thing with the clicking keyboard, me with a screwed-up back (thank you, skiing, for the fun and all the not-fun reminders of fun). So much love happened. And learning. And misbehavior. And loss. And life!
After Gary died, almost nine years ago now, the vital and spirited part of me catapulted forward into a new life that included marriage, a four-year old stepdaughter and lots of new ways of doing things. I didn’t really know what I was stepping into, as we often don’t, but I didn’t have the inclination at that time to think and feel and process, as they say. Life welled up and I got on board. We all do our lives differently; and mine included shoving my feelings of loss down and getting above water to the best of my ability.
Now, in continuing moments of transition in my life, I am seeing things with a bit more forgiveness. I’m still the girl in the story, in so many ways. I can still feel the wind of the desert on my face, see the imagined La Sal Junction Cafe in all its glory, and feel the deliciousness of the wide open sky. One thing about writing fiction is it nails the present moment down with all the aliveness of envisioning deeply.
In the same breath, I’ll say I’m so not that girl anymore. And it’s ok. There has to be sweetness in all the water already under the bridge as it collects into the deeper pools of life and swirls and eddies. Otherwise, what’s the point?