Thursday, July 21, 2011

Constructing Courage

Heading east at a brisk pace along E. 71st Street en-route to work, I see a line of fireman behind a bright red truck. Looks like they're deploying a huge firehose. I look around to gauge the situation. My head is saying, "keep moving." No time to stop and ask.

Even so, their presence stops my feet, calling attention. These guys are ready to respond. Present to the changing circumstances, present to each other, and to everyone in the vicinity; their subdued clothing is accented by bright strips of yellow-green fabric sewn on in various locations. They must be visible to function. At the same time, their understated presence communicates an admirable quality: courage.

Minutes earlier, zipping through Central Park, I hear a woman say assertively, "Come here!" I stop as a fluffy, black-white terrier runs towards her and haltingly comes to a stop. The woman bends down and attaches the dog's leash. She says in a lower-pitched tone, "That's the end of your freedom."

Days later, I enter a darkened movie theater in Battery Park City to see Green Lantern in Real3D. I sit down, gaze up, and follow the instructions on the screen, "Put on your 3D glasses." The hero's journey quickly commences. Hal, the hero or as he's identified early on, the "chosen one," must grapple with two juxtaposed energies: fear and "will." A green-hued alien tells him that green light, being the "color of will," transforms energy into "constructs" that serve. The stronger one's will, the more effective the construct, presumably in serving the greater good. Contrarily, the color of fear is yellow. Its constructs point in another direction entirely.

Hal arrives on the scene as a rather irresponsible daredevil who learns to face his fears and appreciate the power entrusted to him. This is classic superhero storyline. Yet something in the construct of "will" grabs me. Hal lives in his dad's shadow. Actually, the shadow is half fantasy, revealed in a memory-moment when Hal's dad, a test-pilot, says to his tween son, "it's my job not to be afraid." As the film progresses, his dad's espoused fearlessness is questioned, posing it perhaps as a strategy to cope with a fear of powerlessness.

Days earlier, my weekend journey begins by boarding a 2am bus to Boston. The bus is packed, this being close to July 4th. We arrive shortly after sunrise. Bleary-eyed, I walk through chinatown to the Public Garden. I enter the gate, and am captivated by the full-spectrum presence of green from every direction. I instinctively follow the path as it curves towards the pond. As birds chirp and ducks waddle by on the pond, I plop my tired body down on a bench in the shade, lean onto my backpack with a camping pillow in hand, and drink in the calming loveliness. Sunshine sparkles off the water and a light breeze welcomes.

After a much-needed nap, I awaken to bright sunshine on my face. Time to move on. I slowly make my way to the T (trolley) and from there to my mom's house in the suburbs. I'm here with a purpose. My mom and stepfather are moving to a smaller house. I'm planning to sort through the last of my boxes stored in their basement. Their nest is emptying. Years earlier, after my mom remarries, she and my stepfather adopt two babies: my younger sister, now age 23, who lives out of state, and my younger brother, now age 19, who is heading to college in August. My older sisters and I are more like aunts than sisters to them.

I am determined to reduce twelve boxes to a max of two by the end of the day. These boxes are a diverse collection of sizes and content. Coming here to do this is yet another step in deepening my relationship with my family and particularly my mother. Visiting with her is not always easy. We continue to move through communication barriers and heal injuries from the past. Our relationship is complex. Today we are joined in purpose. She encourages me by phone and email, declaring her confidence that I'll be able to get through these boxes in the one day set aside to do so. Our plan is to have some holiday fun the following day.

Getting off the T, I stop en-route for a matcha milkshake. The frosty green hue is a fitting match for the lightly sweet grassy taste. It tastes of summer. By the time I arrive at the house, I'm awake and ready for action.

I begin with what's difficult first and thus pro-actively engage my propensity to procrastinate.

I revisit boxes of photos and slides, many of which have rotted due to water damage from flooding. This offers no option but to let go. This quickens the pace and offers an opportunity to let go of the next batch in "good shape." Gazing at the images, I see stories, and experience these as chapters in a larger story. Each of these moments, each relationship, now appears as a complete step in an ongoing life path. I notice a quality of release, a easing of tension and slowing of breath. I am not grieving. I am appreciating flow.

I save one photo from a batch of 36. One photo. One "roll" of film. One is sufficient. One tells the whole story. This feels great.

Then I see a box labelled "daddy 1". Immediately my chest tightens. Eighteen years earlier, my father lies dying in a Pulmonary Care Unit. No longer able to speak or sing, he smiles when I enters the room. A complex man who during his life alienates at least as many people as he inspires, this action reveals movement in intention and realization. It's his way of connecting. It draws me to sit beside him and do nothing. Just sit, just be close. Many questions unanswered, many feelings surfacing in me but I can't go there. Too painful, too confusing. Even so, sitting there beside him, with nothing to do but breathe, something in me shifts enough to feel an embracing presence connecting us. I close my eyes and rest.

Sitting now beside a box of his belongings, I locate my father's high school yearbook and his photo in it. Age 16 and a senior, I notice that hardly anyone signs his yearbook. Beside his photo, I recognize his handwriting. The words are few and poignantly piercing, "To myself with love." His facial expression is anything but smiling. That same year, he draws a self-portrait, entitled "myself," which I now hold in my hands. A fragile pencil-sketch, it is stunning in its reflection of sadness and longing in his eyes. He seems terribly alone.

Many years after sketching it, he is diagnosed as bipolar and soon after, with multiple sclerosis.
I feel the tightening in my chest more keenly. I put the book and sketch back in the box. I pause for a single breath and then continue sorting.

The tightness increases and within minutes I have to stop. I'm seeing a flurry of images from different times all jumbled in mind. This boy in the yearbook is a different person from the dad who, when I'm 7, swaggers quickly across our kitchen, doing his hilarious impersonation of Groucho Marx. Or the one who a few years later, disappears for weeks on end. Or the one who, soon after re-appearing, explains Einstein's theory of special relativity to me with voracious simplicity at my grandmother's kitchen table and with no other tools than a sharpened #2 pencil and a large lined, yellow pad of paper.

Moments surface and recede as I sit here sorting. Like my dad who disappears and resurfaces in my life until his body begins to collapse and his mind tightens its grasp on constructs. Looking through this collection of artifacts, I'm sliding through time with more questions than answers.

At the age of 12, sitting at that kitchen table, my dad tells me, "Einstein invented C, the speed of light, to explain his new theory. Just as Newton invented calculus to be the language of his new physics." I'm enthralled and listening attentively.

Now, sitting beside a box of belongings, I wonder about that conversation, about those constructs of necessity. Do they construct reality or describe it? Which brings to mind a more fundamental question: what is real?

Peter Bergmann, a colleague of Einstein's and author of the classic textbook, "Introduction to the Theory of Relativity" (being the book my father references in teaching me, though omitting many of the complicated details), as Dennis Overbye writes in Bergmann's obituary:

"collaborated with Einstein on attempts to construct a so-called unified field theory to explain all the forces of nature. Among the attempts was a 1938 paper, building on a notion ... that suggested that space-time was not four-dimensional [time being the fourth dimension], but had a fifth dimension that was not ordinarily perceived because it was very small. Although Einstein and his collaborators subsequently turned to other ideas, the notion is now at the center of modern attempts to create a theory of everything."

He adds,

"Bergmann and Einstein were the first to explain how the fifth dimension could be real and on a par with the others but just smaller, said Dr. Witten of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. "It is a very modern idea."

In the same box, I pull out my father's Ph.D. thesis, which connects with this theory.

At the age of 12, sitting beside my dad, I am utterly drawn into that reality. Later that same year, I construct what I call a "spaceatarium" out of a huge cardboard box for my eighth grade science project. Painted black with a door cut out, dozens of tiny holes are lit up from outside so they shine like stars on the inside. Kids cut class to get in the queue as a long line forms of those wanting to sit inside and listen to the audio track I compose telling the dramatic story of the birth and death of stars. My goal is for the person inside to experience deep space directly, to experience the stars' lifecycle intimately, to feel themselves as these stars, to be there.

As these moments resurface, the tension in my chest and shoulders is calling attention. I stop what I'm doing and breathe into these spaces. Then, I return to another time, also when I'm age 12, though later that same year. Walking home in the Bronx from school by myself, I stop to help a stranger. I am footsteps from my family's apartment home and one block from my grandmother's. The hood of the stranger's car is up. He asks me to get in and gently step on the gas so he can test the engine. I get in.

Suddenly, I feel a knifepoint at my throat. He tells me to get in. I slide over to the passenger side. Minutes later, after driving through this neighborhood and sexually molesting me, he stops the car. As he lets me out he says, "I know where you live. If you tell anyone, I'll kill you." Until we move to Manhattan the following year, I live in a constant state of terror, always looking over my shoulder while walking to and from school. I walk quickly.

Now, sitting in my mother's home now beside a box of belongings, the flood of images slowly ceases as I continue to breathe into the stuck spaces. Slowly, the light in the room softens. The tightness loosens its grip and I feel the wet flow of tears. I instinctively wrap my arms around my torso. I hold myself, that part of me, that girl who dreams of outer space and terrified and terribly alone, longs to be close to her distant father.

I sit in the silent flow of being with him in moments, then of being alone with no idea of where he is or when he'll return. I embrace that girl in me who doesn't understand, who sits confused, afraid, and alone in the dark.

Slowly, I sense a shift and am able to continue with the work at hand.

Hours later, as sunset approaches, I have accomplished my goal. All these belongings are now held in two medium-sized boxes. One contains my belongings, a mix of photos, papers, and other memorabelia. The other contains my dad's belongings.

My mom and I decide to celebrate by going to Woody Allen's new film, "Midnight in Paris." First, I go for a walk. Realizing the next showtime is around when my mom usually goes to bed, I call her to check in about plans. I ask her, "is it too late?" She replies, "no, it's not too late. I really want to share this with you."

A couple of weeks earlier, she calls after seeing the movie, and recommends I see it, saying "I think you'll really enjoy it."

Now, back at the house, we head for the car and arrive around 9pm in Brookline. We park by the newly renovated, historic landmark, the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Sitting beside my mom in that darkened space, I gaze over at her as the film plays on the big screen. She's smiling with such delight, drinking in the nuances and wonderment of the story and its characters.

The movie's lead character, Gil, an aspiring novelist, obsessed with a "golden age" of 1920's Paris, enters it one night. Eventually he discovers in a pivotal moment of recognition that everyone is to some degree dissatisfied with their present because the very fact that it's real makes it dissatisfying. Gil says that even so, we want to escape what's real because it can be painful.

Ultimately, he chooses reality over fantasy.

As I watch, savoring a locally crafted mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, I feel another cooling presence. My mom and I are in flow. Years of difficult interactions melt away.

I leave the theater fully present. I remember something Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn writes in No Death, No Fear, referring to his retreats with veterans of war. He says one can be "reborn in the past" by relating differently to the construct called "past." This centers on feeling remorse for past harmful actions and (even if imagined) from those who have harmed you. Then, what he calls, "the ultimate dimension" is experienced where past and present are co-existent. This experience is distinct from a notion of linear progression or "historical time." He describes this as freedom and writes:

Freedom is the basic condition for you to touch life, to touch the blue sky, the trees, the birds, the tea, and the other person.

As we exit the theater, my mom and I take our time walking to the car and then driving home. I slowly press on the brakes and stop as a traffic light shifts from yellow to red. In contented silence, we breathe beside each other. The light turns green. I gently step on the gas. We continue on.

That night, I sleep out on the deck. I experience the night the way Walt Whitman refers to it in his poem, entitled, A Clear Midnight:

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, and the stars.

I wake up to birds chirping and sunshine warming my face. I get up, pillow in hand, and open the back door. I step into the kitchen. A familiar voice, asking if I slept well, welcomes me home.


  1. This touched me deeply, dear friend. So speaks of the trajectory of healing, but through story, not directives. Beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Your sharing is so enhanced by your art of words.
    I am lost in your keen recollection of life in no time. Your memory is softened by the compassion in your heart, now, that there is an adult to hear the child. Oh, how the two connect!