On a Note to Remember

I received a small note in the mail three days ago. Adorned with a super hero stamp, the card  was a picture of a Georgia O’Keefe painting, and the message inside was a kind inscription, wishing me a happy birthday. The writer wished me as wonderful a celebration as I had arranged for him on his 40th birthday over a decade ago.

The note was from my former partner, and reading it was one of those moments where time slows down and everything else slips into your peripheral vision. The note didn’t bring back any rush of affection or love. Rather, it gave me pause to consider my own generousness, my own capacity for forgiveness.

When most relationships end, it’s messy. Lots of hurt feelings, maybe some bitter words, yelling, and slammed doors. My seven year relationship didn’t end like that. After my partner admitted a months-long infidelity, our relationship began a death spiral almost imperceptible at first, but undeniable at last. I can’t remember yelling or screaming or gnashing my teeth, but I can remember the sad dawning of realizations that Humpty Dumpty could not be put back together. It was a long, quiet, torturous goodbye.

Throughout it all, I was pretty remarkably stoic, and I’ve written previously how, to a large extent, I probably just couldn’t process the awfulness of it. As the relationship ended, as I caught my breath, and as I just happened to meet someone amazingly wonderful the following year, I found myself growing in understanding as to what had transpired, and, rather than reaching a peace about it all, I became more indignant, more self-righteous, and, for lack of a better word, more angry. I didn’t lose sleep, but I no longer cast the ending of the relationship in my mind as something poetic and sad. Now, I understood how shabbily I had been treated, and grew to appreciate how moving on had been the right choice. At the same time, I was enjoying a maturing, deepening love (with Hubby), and hindsight allowed me to see all that had been missing from the prior relationship.

In that process, my heart hardened toward my former partner. We did not communicate regularly or see each other, so it was very much an internal process, but it happened nonetheless. No “Happy Birthday,” no “hope your move goes well,” no anything. We tend to cast the people in our lives into character roles, and he had been sent to the “villain” line in central casting. I’m sure most people would just call this “moving on,” but I know that my feelings were not true to who I am. It wasn’t just moving on; it was taking cherished memories and a decent soul and rewriting them out of existence.

And, then, one day, you find yourself standing in your office, holding a birthday card harkening back to a wonderful trip to New Mexico and reading a kind inscription, and you understand that the inner turmoil, the judgmental posturing, it was all just an indictment of yourself and no one else. And you reflect that we are all screwed up, flawed, inconsistent, hurting, wonderful beasts, and you know that nothing and no one is ever all bad or all good, and you remind yourself to see and embrace nuance, and you…well, you just exhale.

A thoughtful card doesn’t erase the past. And it doesn’t make up for transgressions. But that’s not the point. I think the secret is learning to let go of all the hurts and all the pain, and to keep opening yourself up to love and kindness. And to loving and being kind. Ultimately, nothing else really works.

Since starting this blog, I’ve continually written and rewritten a post on forgiveness, and it never works out. Something is always off. But, standing with the note in my hand, with a little paper reminder that life’s kindnesses come in many different shapes and forms, I think I found some forgiveness.

On Getting Over Yourself

One of my (many) quirks is that, for years, I would have random bouts of embarrassment over events years in the past. I would stop and shudder at the memory of an exchange two decades earlier, or I would turn red in the face thinking about something I did or said as a teenager. It’s not unusual to be self-conscious or regret something dorky you’ve done, but I always found it odd that my bouts of embarrassment were not contemporary but focused squarely and solely on the distant past.

I still experience the occasional chagrin over something long ago, but a realization a few years back significantly scaled back this problem for me. I realized no one else cares. No one else remembers the embarrassing thing I said in 1989. No one else shudders when they think about that weird remark I made in 1992. No one wonders how big a dork one needs to be to say or do something like that thing I did in 1994. No one else remembers these things. No one else is bothered. No one cares. At all.

I reached this achingly obvious realization with the help of a little thought experiment. After one of my moments of embarrassment over something long, long ago, I challenged myself to think of an example of something embarrassing someone else did, recent or in the past. I honestly tried to come up with one example, and I couldn’t. Family, friend, or foe, I could not identify a single example. I could think of funny things, sad things, and even some mean things, but nothing embarrassing. Nothing mortifying or scandalously uncool. I even widened my thought experiment to total strangers. Surely I had seen someone fall down an escalator at some point. Walk out of a bathroom with their pants unzipped or a skirt tucked into pantyhose. Still, nothing. Nada. Nyet.

So much of our selves, our identities, exists between our ears. We walk around in our own little worlds, fighting battles no one else knows about. I’m starting to think life is just the process by which we move from one issue to the next in our brains, the outside physical world playing a tiny, albeit meaningful, role. It’s truly freeing when we realize and accept this. When we can accept the fact that, while we are the superstar in our own movie, we are but a bit player in everyone else’s. We can let go of the worries and anxieties about what other’s think, because they’re fighting their own battles, not our own.

I recently heard a fantastic quote: when you’re 20, you’re worried about what others think of you; when you’re 40, you don’t care what others think of you, and when you’re 60, you realize no one else is thinking about you.

I like the idea of getting over yourself. Getting out of your own way. Forgiving yourself for being a silly, crazy, dumb, imperfect person…just like everyone else.

On a Letter to Your Pain

How long will you hold on to the hurt?

The years stretched by, and the hurts mounted up. Piled up, acquiring their own gravity, their own orbit. Hurts of omission and commission. Subtle and grotesque, battering and bruising. But you were good. You kept quiet. The smiles hiding the gnawing pain inside. You smoothed things over.  Didn’t talk about it. Composure over chaos. Choosing the unreal over the real. Telling yourself that your strength allowed you to take the pain without complaint.

The pain feels so good, so comfortable now. An old, awful friend. Almost powerful, but still a lameness, a brokenness. A ready excuse for all future hurts; it’s always been this way and will forever more. You set it aside, ignore it, pretend it’s not there. Give it its space, its due, its terrible respect.

But you know.

You hate its cancerous torment.

You are an expert cataloguer of pain, of misdeeds, of hurt. They are a currency for you, a system of exchange filling your mental coffer. You know the balance and anticipate future deposits. Withdrawals are never allowed. A tormented usury.

No one ever told you the secret that there aren’t boogeymen. There aren’t monsters. Just the prisons we construct in our hearts. Beautiful, horrific prisons, trapping parts of ourselves, cleaving them off. An amputation. A condemnation of our own doing. Prisons of pain. We can leave any time, but choose not to. We take solace in the confinement. Maybe even revel in it. Share it. Bare it for all to see. Or keep it hidden, a private stash to be uncovered alone. Take it out, marvel in its potent ugliness, and hide it again. Hide it again. Hide it again.

All your joy, all your happiness is muted by this yoke. Rubbed out, erased. Such a heavy mass; nothing escapes from it for long. Or so it seems. You will always snap back to it. At the end of days, you will stare at it. Alone. It has held off all others, all light, all good. It has consumed you.

Replaced you.

It is heavy and black, but not infinitely so. You can sense the light bending around its periphery. Small, dim, but there. Traveling millions of miles in your soul. No amount of pain, no hurt can extinguish it. It never leaves you. It is always there, a companion just like your pain. It does not have a voice, it does not call out. You cannot listen for it. But you can sense it. And you can follow it. Follow it against the awful pull of the pile of hurts. It is not slowed by tears, anger, or sadness.

It is beauty. It is grace. It is all these things, and more. It is forgiveness. For you and others. But mainly for you. It can tear down the prison, the confinement, the isolation. The cleaved can be made whole. The darkness lifted, the pain abated. The years of hurts slipping through your fingers into the beyond, blessedly out of reach.

How long will you hold on to the hurt?