When my girlfriend hung herself last year, it happened in the world of Brooklyn. Living, as I was, in very early sobriety, in a small-midwestern town, I didn’t participate in any of the rituals or communion of grief and funeral. Nor healing. It was a thing I did here. In the only way I could. With surrender, helplessness, sadness that was futile.
Another friend and I wrote long letters back and forth, trying to hold one another together. Saying please don’t ever leave me. Please tell me that you, at least, are alive.
That was the surrender, the acceptance. Being, at least, alive, even though it felt like hell and there was powerlessness everywhere and not even a goddamned friend to hug or hold me.
In one of the letters, he wrote to me of weeping in the backseat of a taxi with another man. Of wordless, but expressed, grief. Many things happen in the backseat of a taxi, I thought, remembering he and I having our own intimacies like a bad secret, and a sweet knowing, between us even after years. Then, he said, he went home to Massachusetts, and he walked in the woods. He walked deep and for a very, very long time. He talked of ‘disappearing’ out there, somehow becoming more and more aware of his own littleness in the bigger and biggerness of the forest, the sky, the earth, the breathing. “That’s the only kind of disappearing I need,” he said.
When we talk of surrender, acceptance, admitting powerlessness in sobriety it can feel like a grief. It can feel like a terrible disappearing. It lets go of mythology and gives in to the very small realness of ourselves. It admits we’re not pretty specimens. That we’re not rock stars. That we’re sorry and pathetic and live in very small towns associated with nothing much at all. Acceptance deals a heavy blow to ‘dreams’ and ‘goals’, and this can feel like an assault on the goodness of man, or on optimism, or on personal strength.
Yet it isn’t that at all. Dreams and goals are valid and pure, they do articulate us from one kind of person to another. But acceptance pushes us to reality checks. To using goals and dreams not in fantasy, but in hour by hour practices. To let go of perfectionism, pride, laziness, envy, and simply be what we are. It is ruthless. It makes us see that we are both good mothers and bad ones. That we are both generous and self-centered. That we are arrogant a hell of a lot more than we are equal.
To experience that as painful, as somehow insulting, is the most common reaction there is.
If we do it, though, if we have the balls to open ourselves to that kind of a living, we don’t find grief, but depth. We don’t renounce the common stuff as ‘material’ or ‘insignificant’, but begin to see how deeply significant it is. We begin to feel, or sense, a kind of interiority to everything that wasn’t there before. We feel not labels or accomplishments or competition, but feelings. In truth, “real life” only happens when we feel deeply. We know, from this place, that perfection, or our best dreams, our resumes, are illusions. That past and future are only interpretations of the present moment.
We accept that love doesn’t make things nice. It breaks your heart. We aren’t here to make things perfect. Snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. We are here to ruin our own hearts and hurt people’s feelings very deeply without meaning to and maybe raise a few kids or start a business along the way. We are hear to love, both the right and the wrong kind of people, and then to die. Storybooks are mostly bullshit.
Yesterday I walked on snow I knew was leaving. I watched the clan of deer knowing they wouldn’t be part of my morning within a few days or weeks, that the winter is over. I had the strange feeling of missing them, longing for not knowing them better, learning everything about deer while I had the chance. I had the feeling – like we do when a love affair ends, or the sixty minutes at the end of the test period is over, or when a friend commits suicide – that I wasn’t finished yet. How unfair. I hadn’t even started. It’s a moody kind of feeling cheated.
But honesty says we never really finish anything in life. We hardly ever begin. That doesn’t ruin it. That changes the experience from impossible to whole. The cheated feeling is half the world of love, and life. It, too, has a kind of sweet in it.
As my friend’s walk into the Massachusetts woods has a sweetness of disappearing. As does the brink of spring. Acceptance, surrender, is a hard but wonderful process of disappearing, as expectation and perfection and storybook, and reappearing as something else. Altogether more fleshy. More stupid. More stubborn.
Acceptance gets a bad rap. It is heard as passivity, or accepting ourselves as our limitations. It is taken as resignation, excuse for withdrawal, a kind of self-indulgence. It isn’t those things. Acceptance isn’t acceptance only of limitations, but also the fact of infinite choice and creativity in the world. It isn’t only the acceptance of bad things happening in the world, but our sense of compassion and sense of responsibility. It does mean we have to accept our anger, even if it’s a murderous instinct to rip our enemies head off. By fully accepting such a thing, or the fact that we’ve lied, cheated, want to sleep with people other than our partner, we immediately become more humble folk. More prone to compassion. And more able to feel a sense of reverence and respect, even for those people who do evil things or royally piss us off. Because I, too, have wanted to scream and kill. I, too, have thought my own dinner more important than a country of billions in crisis. And I, too, have made the assumption that my politics, faith, education or feelings would make the whole world better, if only people would act according to me. I have an intolerant drive to think I know how everyone should be living their lives.
Winter, then, is finished. I still hurt, thinking of my girlfriend stringing herself up. Thinking of all the times I’ll never see her again. Of how I sometimes dream of her, or come across her name in my cellphone, and feel a huge vacuum in the earth that simply reeks with pang.
But like my friend, I only have to go to the woods to disappear. I only have to surrender, accept, be swallowed by the hugeness of plain life, to have that sense of union, or completion, or relief. It has both a cheated feeling and a wanting feeling to it. It isn’t perfect at all. But whole. Whole it is. Profound like words can only bastardize and speak in paradox.