What We Miss When We’re Not Looking

We need healing more than ever now, in many ways. How often we are pushed to forget what this means.  

This is a story about loss and healing, adapted from a story I read in the Salem News earlier this week.

God forbid, Mary would think, at the slightest thought of cat against car. She would take off her own shirt, wrap the body, clutch it to her chest. Use her own mouth as needed. A soft toothbrush would be better, to mimic the mother’s tongue. She would rock and hold and hum, use a dropper to feed if she had to, until well.

But when Max disappeared, there was no body, only an open screen, as if to say, here is the trace of love leaving, and it reminded her back to similar spaces, too many to count. The cool side of the bed, the left-behind toys, the unnecessary landline that only solicitors called, which she kept active anyway, just in case.

Max, she called. Max! He did not come. She called every shelter, even a pet psychic. She walked the neighborhood. She drove the surrounding neighborhoods.  She looked differently at every bush, every alley and drainpipe, gulley and ditch.

Phonecall, phonecall, phonecall. Hour, hour, day. Weeks, then months. Then it was years. An ache like that will swallow a person whole unless they find something else to do with it.

She found some others with similar aches, needing someplace to put them. They went about finding the lost kittens. They brushed them with toothbrushes, wrapped them in clean towels, bottle fed them until they could eat. They paired them with the mother cats who had lost their babies. They took in dogs, too. A few birds. They took in so many that they needed a bigger space. They became an organization, a shelter, an adoption center, a rescue for animals and each other. 

Max, by the way, came back. This was six years later. He had fleas in his ear but was otherwise fine. 

I can’t help but wonder how much good would never have happened if Max hadn’t decided to go and stay missing when he did. About all the littles that would have died in the elements, undiscovered, if no one was looking with such an ache. Or about all the lonely people wandering without any place to put their dangerous aches, becoming dangers to themselves and others. All that needed saving, left untended. All the answers to other questions, left undiscovered without the first one, Where is Max?

The pleas of others that might have been missed, except that someone was listening in earnest, for answers to their own.  I’m reminded how often I’ve been moved by loss and heartbreak, into places I would otherwise never have found.  I suspect that much of the visible light in others is a function of what escapes through the breaks.

If Max had not returned, this would still be a redemption story, but I wouldn’t know it. Not because there wasn’t a shelter created after he left, but because the creation of the shelter was something long and slow, and not the sort of event that lends itself to a story in the news. A disaster works for a story, if not its aftermath. Same with a sudden victory. The essentials are there – who, what, where, and when, at least, if not why. 

Growth in numbers is a news story. But numbers are abstractions, not living things. When it comes to the healing and growth of living things and human creations, sometimes there is only a why, to begin with. Who, what, where, when – these emerge over time, and they tend to be diffuse, influenced by many people, doing many things, in numerous places and ways, over and across time, slowly, in ways that are neither sudden nor singular nor dramatic. In fact, if you show up looking for something on which to report, in any given growth area, what you find may look like nothing at all.  Loving patience is a practice, and as such it is almost never a happening. Loving patience is what allows the living to grow and heal. We need healing more than ever now, in many ways. How often we are pushed to forget what this means.  The question is ever, What’s Happening?  and the answers we tend to find in response tend to be the ones that have us perpetually missing the greater possibilities in a given moment. 

Real growth and real change is slow work, and often looks like nothing to report. Unless you look hard and long, the way only someone with a full or aching heart will do, unable to stop.

The story that inspired this post can be found here. I’ve taken liberties with names, backgrounds, and imaginative elements, as appropriate for my wondering purposes. 

Angling

Writers keep tackle boxes of images, memories, metaphors. Bait the hook. Cast into the dim light of early morning, over the blank page. This loud hunger, shhhh. Try the next metaphor. Vary the retrieve. Look and wait.

I recently came upon a  character who is fishing. I don’t do this, so this means it’s time to research some. What test for what catch, what lure, what line, what basic knots? What bait for bonito, how to prepare guitarfish, how to vary the retrieve when catching halibut. Sometimes you want to move slow and steady. Other times it’s crank, crank, twitch. What I find is supposed to be for these characters, but I can’t help sampling some. I’ve always had it, this waiting pose, looking out. 

“Oceanside Pier 4” by Dmitry Lyakhov on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license. 

Anglers have their rods and their lines; their lures and their five gallon buckets. Writers keep tackle boxes of images, memories, metaphors. Bait the hook. Cast into the dim light of early morning, over the blank page. This loud hunger, shhhh. Try the next metaphor. Vary the retrieve. Look and wait.

Now I have an excuse to go to the pier, just looking, waiting like the others, but without a line. To watch the angler in the blue jacket, and hold a silent one-way conversation.

What are you bringing up now? Is that mackerel? Maybe you will filet it yourself when you get home. Maybe there’s someone waiting to add it to a bowl with jalapeños, lime, cilantro, oil, as her mother did when she was a girl. And who taught you what line, and what taught you how to wait, and what longings are behind the eyes you cast over the surface now, reflecting back the deep? And who meets you in the silence of your sunset reverie, and what other shores do you remember, and what aches would you rather forget? What makes you limp when you move now, back to the folding chair? Is it simply stiffness of hard work over time, or something else? There are no grays visible beneath your ball cap, and yet your face is etched with deep lines, like a bronze sculpture. Angler, where are the young promises of new life you once held on your knee, raised up, up! — above your head, just to admire? Who laughed back, cooing, and what is it like to remember them at a distance, and what makes them laugh now, do you know? And who holds them now, and are they gentle, and can you bear to ask?

Earthling vs. Surrender

Earthling may not know why she is waiting. But sometimes it’s like this when the only thing to do is sit and be.

In this scene, earthling doesn’t look so hot. It appears that earthling is just very tired. Always seeking, always questioning. Always trying to figure things out. Earthling gets like this from time to time. They are good at getting things done, but sometimes the thing to do is something else. Earthling is stubborn and sometimes gets tunnel vision. On such occasions,  wise woman may visit.

[Enter wise woman. She finds a bedraggled-looking earthling, walking in a dazed manner like they have forgotten what it was that they meant to do. She approaches gently, waits for earthling to notice. Earthling is preoccupied, so wise woman speaks first, placing a gentle hand on earthling’s back.]

What do you do when the walls are breached, defenses crumbled, when strategy is suddenly a moot point?
I shall defend! 

No, listen. I just told you that your lines of defense are gone. 
Oh. Then I shall get away! There are lots of alternatives. Just look at this list!

It’s silly to run at this point. Where would you hide, you and your long list?
Well, then. I shall rebuild!

Sure. Maybe, but you’re still without walls for the time being, aren’t you?
Sigh. Damn, you’re right. Well now what?

Just wait.
And?

Sit.
And?

Listen.
That’s not very much. I prefer lists. I like to cross things out, one by one. See? Post blog, get groceries, send that email you don’t want to send, check that email you don’t want to read, remember to run, walk, or swim in body; remember to call, remember to read for restoring of soul, remember to sit so as not to forget point of connection between body and soul, mind and everything else; remember to remember, remember to forget.

Dear, just stop.
Stop what?

Doing.
Doing what?

No, just stop doing. 
And?

I already told you. Just wait.

[Earthling may not know why she is waiting. But sometimes it’s like this when the only thing to do is sit and be. She’s practicing.]

But Why Bother? In Defense of Nobody’s Heroes

There is a lot to value about artistic recognition, but this is a cheer for the value of being solidly nobody.

There is a lot to value about artistic recognition, but this is a cheer for the value of being solidly nobody. Considering the Zen idea of “beginner’s mind, best mind” helps to highlight how the point is to keep beginning. The people I find most interesting (both well-recognized and completely unknown) are those who are more interested in what is confusing or new to them than anything they have already done. Life rarely fits any limited ideas of what it should look like, and this is the deep appeal of the misfit creative beings who go on doing their thing, pursuing deep interests and questions: not because anyone is asking, but because there is some life there, and sometimes because no one else is looking for or after it. 

To share from the point of strangeness and isolation, a person may create openings in the walls of strangeness and isolation that prevent us from knowing each other. It is interesting and deeply human, and a deeply loving act of service: the project of creating homes and supportive ecosystems that work with and for ourselves and the lives around us, regardless of who is or isn’t asking, noticing, picking up, or recognizing. 

Frank McCourt was sixty-six when he published Angela’s Ashes. He had spent a career as a teacher. Alma Woodsey Thomas had her first show at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five-year career teaching art in DC public schools. Mary Delany was seventy-two when she invented her own art form, mixed media collage. 

I am currently reading Helen DeWitt’s brilliant novel, The Last Samurai, which she published at the age of forty-three. This may seem relatively young, until you realize how early and earnestly she began. We live in a culture that loves to celebrate the young phenom, the wild breakout success, but I take heart in knowing that DeWitt’s brilliant “debut” was her 50th manuscript.  In each of the preceding forty-nine, she had labored diligently and faithfully toward her art, in hopes that it would be read and recognized. She was right, but she may have been “proven wrong” if she stopped after the first forty-nine “failures.” I doubt these were artistic failures, now that I have read DeWitt’s work, but her singular brilliance and truly groundbreaking aesthetic no doubt made unfamiliar demands on her readers, so it was likely passed over, in favor of more easily accessible and familiar styles.

These heroes are the passionate, sensitive artists who managed to maintain artistic vision and practice while working in other roles. Recognizing and celebrating the life-giving courage of their radical acts can be a healthy antidote to the common tendency to see perceived limitations as impediments to artistic development. I could do my work if only –– fill in the blanks, depending on the mood and obstacles of the moment. But if the goal is protection and preservation of life, then obstacles and moods, while deeply relevant to our being in the world, have no relevance (generally, in professional life) on whether the work gets done or not.

“Pygmy Tarsiers” by Rodney Campbell on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License. *

I am consistently honored, thrilled, and humbled by the power of artists who demonstrate this level of artistic professionalism even as they play working roles as plumbers and dishwashers, house cleaners and repair people; chefs and diaper changers and all-around creative inspirations for managing the way the flow of the substance of any given day can feel like trying to take a sip through a fire hose while trying not to perish from drowning or thirst. 

It’s like that. Not sometimes, not exceptionally; but most of the time, and consistently. I’d rather learn to work with these conditions than cross my fingers and hope for better ones someday. 

*The pygmy tarsier, a nocturnal primate native to Indonesia, was widely believed to have gone extinct in the early 20th century, but then it was accidentally captured (and sadly killed) in a rat trap in the year 2000. Fortunately, since then, several other members of the species have made appearances, and their movements are now being tracked and monitored with great hope, interest, and appreciation for their fragility. One of my favorite species of internet research is searching up newly discovered and rediscovered species.