Being present in the moment is unusually difficult for me. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had several elaborate fantasy storylines going on in my head, into which I plunge when I’m waiting for sleep, doing routine chores or even going for a walk.
Last spring, I forced myself to abandon one of these long-running daydream sagas when I realized it was draining me of interest in my real life. Inhabiting my actual existence was terrifying. I remember standing on the curb outside my house, feeling naked under the huge sky. I was a tiny point on earth that the wind could blow away.
I started writing my novel as a replacement for these abandoned scenarios in which I was the heroine of a life more exciting, empowered, or romantic than any real existence could be. Daydreams, like movies and unlike life, are all “good parts” (or at least interesting parts). All my libido was being diverted into unreal experiences.
Writing fiction would discipline me to empathize with people different from myself, and to learn about topics that I’d normally ignore as having nothing to do with me. If I was stuck with myself, at least I could try to expand that self beyond the habitual preferences and character traits that made up my self-image. How often do we say “I don’t like that kind of music” or “I wouldn’t react that way” and never ask where that “I” comes from? I don’t like heavy metal, but Prue (my female protagonist) does; listening to it as Prue, I discover other potential selves besides the one I’ve chosen to actualize.
The problem, after all, is not with my particular life, which happens to be extraordinarily fortunate. It’s more that I feel unfit to live that life. Why should I be happy and others miserable? For that matter, why should I experience the world as a 35-year-old white girl from Massachusetts by way of New York, and not as a 50-year-old black male preacher from Mississippi? The awful contingency of my specific viewpoint reminds me of my creatureliness — finitude, mortality — which is what humans since Adam and Eve have been desperate to deny.
What a comfort to find someone else who understands this. Douglas Goetsch
is a poet to whom I am always happy to lose a contest. Here’s the end of the lengthy title poem from his chapbook Your Whole Life
(Slipstream Press, 2007), first published in Chautauqua Literary Journal (2006):
What child doesn’t ask Why
am I me? Why aren’t I that
tall boy or that pretty girl who
stays out of trouble? Or a frog
or a Martian?
My grade school
teachers told us how lucky
we were to be born American
when most of the world wasn’t.
They showed us films about hunger,
pollution, infestation, overpopulation,
and their favorite, the woman
with no arms going about her day,
driving to the market, slipping
her foot from her shoe to pull
money from a wallet in her mouth.
I ran home and begged my mother
to stop smoking because I’d seen
her lungs in class and they looked
like Pittsburgh, on the banks
of whose rivers stood that once
proud Indian crying a salty tear.
My deeper question, which I
never asked, was how she could
go through life with breasts
stuck there on the front of her
so inconveniently. What if
she wanted to throw a ball
or swing a bat? But most females
say the same thing about the idea
of a penis in their way all the time,
so I guess I learned early on
it’s hard being anybody, young or old,
bald or black, tall kid slouching,
skinny girl thinking she’s fat.
Sometimes I’d like to be two
men and one woman and have
them hand off living my days
like tag-team wrestlers. One
of the men is married and loves
his house, the other likes his fun
but risks killing us all. The woman
wants a goddamn baby so she
wears heels and is nice to guys.
Maybe they tag each other when
they’re in a jam, or bored.
Maybe they just hand over
the car keys every eight hours, wish
the other luck as they disappear,
feeling their common heart beating
a little too fast, wondering if
it’s their life, galloping away.
This excerpt from “Stanley Avenue”, another poem in the book, describes a scenario that’s all too common for me:But a timeless afternoon demanding nothing
disturbs the half-dressed man lying next to her
even as he strokes what he loves most—
her milk white flank curving to her hip.
He’s working on joy; it isn’t going well.
Either he doesn’t feel it, or he feels too keenly
joy’s transience, knowing the only thing
that can possibly follow good weather is bad.
It would be easier to dwell in certainty,
depart this house, go back to his own,
a shack he should start readying for winter.
It’s not really a home—leaving is more
his home. Each time he hears the horn
of the Staten Island Ferry three miles off
a voice says You missed it.
Thinking about these issues, I was comforted by Hugo’s
recent post on “acting in the courage of our uncertainties,” another variation on the problem of having an infinite imagination and a finite lifespan. Commenting on a Richard J. Neuhaus article in First Things, Hugo speaks of maturity as willingness to “prune the branches of possibility”:
I’ve written before of the great mistake of “waiting to be struck by certainty”. Deciding — where to go to school, whether to make a romantic commitment, what job to take, whether to have children — is hard. But as Neuhaus reminds us, God does not make our decision for us; he gives us certainty (if it comes at all) long after we have chosen, not before. Certainty, if it comes at all, is a reward bestowed on those who had the courage to “cut off” other options, to close forever the doors to rooms they won’t be coming back to….
In 1992, I was miserable in my first marriage. The child of two divorced parents, I had sworn to the highest heavens that I would marry once and once only. I married my first wife in a high Catholic ceremony, in a church that teaches that the marriage bond is dissoluble. After not-quite two years, I was deeply and profoundly unhappy, and so was the woman to whom I was married. For months, I agonized about what to do, about whether to stay or to go. I contemplated having a series of extra-marital affairs, hoping to have fulfillment on the side while maintaining the public fiction that I could do what my parents did not, which was have a marriage that would last until death itself.
Finally, one blazing hot Sunday afternoon, driving through the Sepulveda Pass, I made my decision. I had no blinding flash of light, no “road to Damascus” moment. What I had on that day (July 19, 1992) was the sudden realization that “waiting to be struck by certainty” would mean years and years of living a wasted shell of a life. I had a sudden understanding that the God I loved would be waiting for me, to comfort me and sustain me (and my soon-to-be-ex-wife) — but He was waiting on the Other Side of the Decision. The comfort and certainty I sought would come only after I chose. It would not and could not be the catalyst for the decision itself. And so I went back home, to a dusty apartment in a dingy part of Van Nuys, and made a decision. And in time, the blessed certainty came.
Hugo’s post reminds me that God redeems our finitude, by wanting to be in relationship with us, and in the Incarnation, by taking it on Himself. If Jesus was willing to put up with the constraints of being a specific individual living one life and not another — and for someone accustomed to omnipresence, that must have been tough — who am I to complain?