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