What I’ll Accept

“Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?”
—–Marcus Aurelius

I’m still trying to write Part Two because I wrote Part One and I already posted something in-between, but I can’t quite get there because this is the story that wants to come out, and really, it can be An Ordinary Miracle in its own right.

And I’m wanting to write this because for whatever reason it was that came over me, I seized a box of photos from when my kids were little and so many years away from losing the innocence that’s their birthright, tore through them and picked out the cutest of the cute and took them to my therapist to show her.

“Here,” I said as I walked in. “Look. I don’t know why, but I had to show you.”

There should be a word for the kind of loneliness you’re left with when someone you love more than life – or maybe you love life because of them, or maybe you’re not so sure what you feel about life, but you do know they’re what makes it bearable – when that one you love is all of a sudden dead. Just…dead. One minute they’re here, then they’re not, and one year, eight months and three days later you still can’t believe it and no matter how much good you know they’ve helped you see even though they’re dead,  you just don’t see how you’re going to go on much more without them.

Signs” notwithstanding.

We moved to Montclair when Philip was seven and Natalie five. Phil and I had been looking for a house in nearby Verona, which was somewhat less expensive. But our realtor’s office was in Montclair and the more we drove through it, the more Montclair’s funky, artsy, hipster, stately atmosphere started to feel like home, and I began to wonder why we were driving away from the place I wanted to live instead of toward it.

So Phil and I decided to expand our search into Montclair, and two weeks later I did something I hadn’t once thought to do during the five months we’d been on the hunt. I opened the real estate section of The New York Times on Saturday morning and saw a “Cozy and Charming” house for Sale by Owner in Montclair at a price that made me think there must be something wrong with it. There were built-in corner cabinets in the dining room and I don’t know why that’s what they mentioned in the ad instead of the the huge backyard with the deck and the patio and the stand of six cedar trees that stood guard over the large plot of grass just beyond them. But corner cabinets worked for me. I’m a sucker for aged and charming and “built-in” anything.

I made an appointment to see it on Sunday. Even if “Cozy and Charming” turned out to be “Cramped and Confined,” at least we’d spend some time in Montclair.

So next day we went to see it with Philip, but without Natalie, who hated car rides and asked if she could stay with Grandma, promising she’d come to NJ when we bought a house and were really going to live there.

Montclair is a lovely, hilly, hip and shaggy-tree town. It has lots of parks and a 408-acre reservation that spans three towns. It has movie theaters that show Manhattan-movies and restaurants and shops that make weekend parking impossible. It has a museum and a university, an uptown, a downtown and even a town in the middle. There’s the diversity of the not-so-mini-mansion-rich and lower-east side poor. And it’s filled with artists and writers and journalists and actors. High-level creatives, the kind of people I imagined had something I didn’t but living among them felt right even if I wound up keeping mostly to myself anyway.

When we pulled up in front of the house, I did what I always did – got out of the car, looked up and down the block, stood for a moment and asked, How do I feel?? To my surprise, the answer was good. Like, really good. Like, I think I could wake up and come outside and be really-glad-I-live-here good.

You already know the end of the story – we bought the house. But more importantly, we bought a home.

I suspect most of the house-buying-and-selling-thing is a transaction of the kind Nadiya had to suffer. Where the realtors swoop in, take the soul out of the house and hussle you out the back door when the buyer’s coming in the front. So the people who are making one of the biggest decisions they’ll ever make in their lives don’t get to meet each other until maybe it’s all said and done. I don’t know how it got to be like that, but welcome to Real Estate 2013. Me? I got lucky. I got Sam and Gina.

Sam and Gina raised their two kids in that house, but with a third on the way, they needed more room. They didn’t want to leave as much as they felt they had to. But it was the home they’d spent years creating and no matter how many realtors called begging to sell it for them, they said no, we want to try to sell this ourselves.

(And as I found out later, one of those realtors was mine, who called Sam and Gina and said, “I know a couple this house is perfect for – and I can get them to pay you $25,000 more for it!”)

The house was smaller than what I’d imagined for us, but its advertised Charm-and-Cozy actually was Charm-and-Cozy. The yard was lovely, with a wooden swing set in one corner and and a shed that looked straight out of a farmhouse with red siding and white trim in the other. And when a bunny leapt past me as I stood outside contemplating all this, I knew this was my  house.

And I suspect Sam and Gina thought the same when, sitting at their dining room table making our offer, the French Doors slid open and Philip walked in. He’d been in the yard playing with their five-year-old daughter. “Excuse me,” he said, addressing himself to Gina. “But the little girl went into the barn and I don’t know if she’s supposed to.”

No, she wasn’t supposed to, since what Philip meant by “the barn” was the shed in the corner with the lawn mower and paint cans and garden tools and bug spray and pretty much every parent’s toxic nightmare all stashed into one spot. Sam ran out to get her while Gina gushed her thanks to Philip. And on the way home in the car, I turned to Philip and said, “You know, if we get that house, it’s because of you.”

Which I did and do believe. Because when Sam called us that night to congratulate us, he also let us know they turned down a higher offer because Gina was firm that the house needed to have children, and I knew it was Philip she had on her mind.

I’m not immune to the what-ifs, but thank God I don’t take them seriously. It’s crossed my mind that, well, what-if we didn’t buy that house, what-if we’d moved to Verona instead, what-if we’d chosen a different school for Philip to go to. Except more than that is the way my past has been woven, the way one story overlaps with another and how I can’t unravel one thread without unraveling it all. And Philip has been so much a part of whatever’s recognizably mystical in my life that even though I hate that I have to accept that he’s dead, I’m willing to accept he’s not gone.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


Simple Isn’t Easy

One day Krishnamurti told his followers he was going to tell them his secret. I can imagine the excitement rippling through the crowd, the expected relief, the gratitude that they must be his Very Special Followers since they were the ones present at this much-unexpected announcement. I imagine many of them thought their journey was over, that once they knew this secret, their suffering would end. And I expect it would, if they could really understand what he said. Because what he said was, “I don’t mind what happens.”

Truth is simple. That doesn’t make it easy.

I already said that Natalie was unhappy at school. She was a freshman at Rutgers in New Brunswick, the same college where Philip was a junior. This wasn’t a matter of oh-she’ll-be-fine-in-a-couple-of-months. In February of 2012, she was in the middle of her second semester, and I was still talking her off the ledge. She was working on transferring, and I was trying to encourage her to hang in and just finish the semester.

Conventional wisdom says “Going away to college is good for them.” CW isn’t always – if ever – wisdom. CW easily turns into something she said so he said so everyone says but not many give much thought to what they’re saying. Some kids do well at college, some don’t. There’s more than one way to live a life, and SAT brilliance coupled with a $60,000-a-year Ivy League education doesn’t mean you or your kid are going to have the fantasy future you think it promises. If you have a future at all, that is.  But it sure is fun to tell your friends about it. Even more fun than telling them about your last raise or your new Mercedes or any of those other things that make us really proud to be us until we need the next proud thing because the first proud thing is well, just so yesterday.

Philip took easily to living away, but Natalie did not. Many of my conversations with her were to remind her that there were three options in any situation: Accept it, leave it or change it. She was trying to change it by applying to other colleges; but on the way to leaving Rutgers, all she could do was accept that she was there for the short term. To do that is to take responsibility for your life, for what you’re feeling and how you’re thinking. Blame your circumstances all you want, all you’ll get is more suffering. Which isn’t to say you “accept” any kind of crap that’s thrown at you. You recognize it’s crap and figure out how to clean it up and stay out of its way once you do. And not once; it’s never once. It’s the work of a life, the work that matters most, the work that every degree in the world isn’t going to ensure you’ll have mastered.

Not to suggest this is any sort of easy. See, I’d been grappling with How to Live forever. The first time I drank I was 11, which is just to say how early I was unhappy, how early I was looking to escape. At 24 I joined AA, but nearly 30 years later I still didn’t get what was so great about life, why after 30 years of therapy and 10 of antidepressants I still didn’t want to be here. But I’d spent the year-and-a-half or so before Philip died listening to Eckhart Tolle CDs whenever I drove anywhere – and often, to listen was the reason I got in the car in the first place. Accept it, leave it or change became my credo because it gave me a way to think about a given situation instead of reacting to it.

And I paid attention to the 24/7 film festival that was going on in my head, which was mostly playing reruns. Stories of vengeance, hate, anger, victimhood, all of which I wrote, produced, directed and starred in. Worst of all, I believed them, and my emotions acted accordingly. It wasn’t the situation that was causing the feelings; it was the endless, looping, dog-chasing-its-tail stories that kept my gut churning.

So I stopped. I became a spectator instead of a participant, stopped the show when I didn’t like it. Simple, but not easy. But the work was to stay here, in the present. Not in the past that was gone or in a future that never came except as the now.

When Philip was little, I used to tell him that I was going to paint on his wall, “Be here now.” I was so busy noticing he wasn’t present that I didn’t get that I wasn’t either.

Accept it, leave it, change it. This was the work I was doing at the moment of impact, the moment I crashed and burned on the landing.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

In The Desert*

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
–Stephen Crane

This is the kind of poem I live for. It is a tender and terrible look at the nature of Self and suffering and acceptance. Acceptance is not happiness. It’s living with the bloody bitterness of life without wanting it to be something else.

I thought of the poem because these last few days I have cried bitterly; on awakening, on the bus, at my desk, in the bathroom. I can do nothing for it. I’m tense and anxious and I just want the relief of my son coming home; I want to hear his voice and touch him and meet him for dinner. I want to watch South Park with him, watch him fence, watch him him rip off his helmet and tip it to his opponent, which he did with grace and dignity whether he won or lost.

Round and round I go, wondering how I’m to live with this, round and round, wanting Philip to be here but not wanting to be in anyone else’s shoes because it is my bitter heart. It’s just that the enormity of my loss has been hitting me again, and I’m starting to go under.

One of the ways my Very Own Personal Background has informed my grief comes from believing myself to be part of the Scotty-Beam-Me-Up crowd. My skin doesn’t wear well here, and I have a hard time inhabiting it in some peaceful way. Before Philip died, I decided to start fresh, to stop asking myself what the hell I was here for. It didn’t matter why I was here – the point was, I am here. So what do I do with the life that I have? I started by narrowing my focus to what I loved, because that’s what’s worth living for. First, my kids; as long as I have my kids, I’m okay, I told myself.  But before I could figure out what next, Philip died. My focus became so narrow I could thread it through a needle: Philip, Philip, Philip. I told myself I had to go on for my daughter, but what to do about going on for me?

I need to go back to the landing in order to go forward with the rest of my story, back to the night Phil came to me and said the unsayable. Something happened there, something I’m still trying to find language for. If I am at all a spiritual person, it lies in the fact that I believe there is a meaning to our lives beyond the events that happen in it. Our situations are the form; the meaning is in the content of those situations. Your car can get stolen and my car can get stolen, but beyond the inconvenience of it, what it means to me is not what it means to you. It can’t be. What happens in our lives isn’t separate from the context it occurs in.

Whatever faith I have is a culmination of what I’ve been searching for since I was old enough to ask about the why of it. There was AA, Buddhism, A Course In Miracles, Rebirthing, Past Life Regression, Reichian Breathing, Shiatsu, Yoga, Homeopathy, Eckhart Tolle. Therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. What I believe comes from what makes sense to me; from what I’ve studied and what I’ve lived. It doesn’t fit into a box that I can name, like Buddhism or Alcoholism or any other -ism. It’s evolving, because coming to consciousness isn’t a place you get to. It’s realizing you’re already there.

I believe in the simple law of Karma. On the physical level, it’s easy to see the consequences of our actions. I stick my hand in the fire, I get burned. It’s no different on the spiritual or psychic level. If, say, you live a life of greed, you won’t be at peace. An unhappy life is consequence enough. That’s it. I’m not talking great metaphysical platitudes. I’m talking common sense. And the fact is that we are the ones who decide what’s good and what’s bad. The death of a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent – but it’s not a punishment. It is a fact. A hard, brutal fact. If I decide Philip’s death is a punishment for something I did, then – as my therapist pointed out – he becomes a prop in my life instead of a person in his own right. His death is not a punishment. It is a tragic blow, and the question is, now what? Because in some sense there is a big “supposed-to” about all this. A familiarity. Something I’m supposed to know or learn and that I couldn’t and wouldn’t if Philip hadn’t died.

The odd thing is that Natalie feels the same. He cheated death once, she said to me – at the beach. She’d had a feeling something was going to happen to him. Two weeks before he died, she told her boyfriend she was afraid that he was going to.

But here’s the thing. I don’t believe in destiny.  We are free to choose. So what do I mean by saying “supposed-to?” I am holding conflicting ideas because I have to. I am not talking logic, the kind of logic we apply to what we see in front of us. I am talking about the deeper meaning beyond the logic, the meaning that no one can find for us although certain people can guide us. I can say there’s something “supposed-to” about Philip’s death as well as say we are free to make choices and that he did not have to die. I have to be able to hold these conflicting thoughts and not settle for the false and ultimately deadening comfort of thinking I’ve got it figured out. It is my Mind that wants to know, while my Spirit wants to wander.

And this is part of what I have to tell you before I can get back to the landing.

*This is actually part of a longer poem by Crane, “The Black Riders and Other Lines.”

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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