January 03, 2006

Breath and Breathing.

I first came across the amazing, witty, neurotic Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (which my father has persisted in calling "One Bird at a Time," as if writing were similar to hunting, or eating). I had no idea, at the time, that she was a strong, liberal Christian as well as a writer; not until I picked up her Traveling Mercies. It has been years since I read either of these books in full, though I often refer back to her book on writing when I need reminders about "small assignments" and how to tune down those harsh critics in my head. Just last night, though, I began reading her latest work, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, which was a Christmas gift from my only-very-recently-an-ex boyfriend. It has sparked in me a desire to write about my personal life briefly, in connection to my faith as well as my general craziness. But first I wanted to start with praise and a strong recommendation to read any or all of Anne Lamott's work.

That said.

Last night when I was curled up in bed reading this new book that had been given to me by the man I had been assuming for more than two years I would one day marry, something struck me about what Lamott wrote concerning breath and breathing. She wrote that she has always been bad at it. That her forte as a child was holding her breath, from one end of the pool, bridge or tunnel to the other; sometimes, when she was angry, holding her breath until she passed out. Holding your breath, she said, was the ultimate withholding--you weren't putting anything out, and you weren't taking anything in.

If I'd read this a year ago, I would have been amused, baffled maybe, but not really familiar with that wild, cut-off feeling inside you that can make you feel, even as an adult, that the only thing you can do is to stop breathing. But that was exactly how I had felt the night before. The pain of losing the man I loved--losing him not to anonymity, but worse, to "mere" friendship, which gave me great insight into how happy he was pursuing a new relationship with another woman--was too much. I couldn't do what was being demanded of me. I couldn't be a good friend to him, I couldn't be happy for him with the possibility that someday he might have a wife, a family, a whole life that I would be a part of only peripherally. I wanted to hold my breath. I wanted to deny my participation in this possible outcome. To deny that the break-up had originally been mutual; to deny the huge well of regret I was slowly sinking into; to deny the course that I felt things were suddenly taking, beyond my control and without my consent.

I've heard that anorexia can stem from a sense of helplessness, that young people will sometimes exert this extreme control over and denial in their diets because it is the only place in which they feel they have any real control. Holding my breath became my way of exerting the only control I had, during a time when I finally understood that there was absolutely nothing I could do to "win him back," to take back the break-up or reverse the time and change that had passed. I wanted to hold my breath, to demand that everything stop. The funny thing was, I couldn't. The more desperate and depressed I got, the more I just wanted to cease the effort of breathing, but my muscles tensed, my chest shook with crying, and no matter what, I just couldn't stop breathing. And this drove me crazy, made me feel wild and out-of-control. To not even be able to stop my own breath?! Not even for a moment, not even for the length of time it would take to swim across a pool or drive through a tunnel?

The other thing Lamott wrote was that we all have our crazy moments. We don't like to talk about it, but we all have moments where we are absolutely crazy-out-of-control and are ashamed of it, really ashamed. Her son is a teenager now, and she talks often throughout the book about their fights, their hormonal clashes--male adolescence meets female menopause. And how sometimes she can't stand her own behavior, and thinks she is awful and a disgusting mother; and how, equally, sometimes she thinks her son is mean, dull, even "ruined," despite being the most wonderful, loving, clever person she knows. We all feel this way, she says, about family and friends--we are all just a little bit crazy and messy.

I am messy. Right now, my life is a complete mess. I dropped out of graduate school, I am living in a city far away from all family and friends except my now-ex-boyfriend, working in a messy, crazy restaurant in a messy, crazy neighborhood, waiting on messy, crazy people. For a long time, I thought I had to stay in school because there was nothing to do in the "real world." I revised this recently when I realized that it wasn't that there was nothing to do outside of school, but that there was nothing to do that didn't actually matter in some way. Outside of school, there were real mistakes to be made and every decision had the potential to be a mistake. If I left school, I used to think, I wouldn't know what to do--not because there was nothing to do, but because what I did might actually matter, might actually have consequences and meaning. This is a crazy way of thinking. It's the same thinking that drove my insecurity about leaving school and my corrosive need to get out of academia and actually do something. We are all crazy, if only in some little way.

I couldn't stop breathing. In the same way, I couldn't stop my life from being meaningful. Both of these things carried with them the potential for mistakes, for messiness and disaster. As long as you are dicking around, refusing to fully participate, you can feel safe from important screw-ups. Any screw-up will be unimportant. But at the same time, any decision will be as unfulfilling and meaningless as choosing which of six sauces to dip your boneless chicken wings in--you are in charge, but in charge of what, and who cares? For a brief moment, I got very angry at the situation, at the Divine and the interconnection with other human beings that gave me this undeniable and deadly sense of meaning. I was very angry at God for not letting me stop breathing.

At the same time, I was sure that I was supposed to suffer. How could I prove my regret, if I did not suffer? How could I show that I truly loved my ex and hoped to enter back into a romantic relationship with him, if I wasn't completely miserable and lost without him? It was a messy, crazy kind of logic--if I was happy without him, why would he ever come back? (But then, why would he want to come back to a woman as crazy and messy and depressed as I was, anyway?) Here's the thing: what's love got to do with it? Does love demand suffering? Maybe love can grow out of suffering, making the most of pain and hardship, but it certainly does not demand suffering as proof of its sincerity. It wasn't that I wasn't downright joyful loving him, it wasn't that spending time with him wasn't still the best part of my day, it wasn't even that I feared him slowly growing colder and farther away (at least, after a while this fear had subsided)... I was miserable, in the end, mostly because I thought I had to be. I felt unhappy and out of control because I had relinquished control. I was afraid that learning to love him unconditionally would teach me never to expect love of the same caliber in return. Nevermind that the capacity of unconditional love itself sustained me and made me feel a secret joy; the nature of it as unconditional meant that I had control only over the love I gave, not the love I received. Is this lack of control, or the ultimate acknowledgment of freedom?

It's not as though I haven't loved unconditionally and unrequitedly before. I have. The thing is, the happiness that comes from loving this way does not rid one of loneliness--it exists in partnership with it. It is living in a world and time when joy is paired with and tempered by loneliness. It is, as Lamott writes, being "Easter people, living in a Good Friday world." And my worst fear, as Major Briggs on Twin Peaks once said, is that love is not enough. Nevermind that it always has been. Nevermind that even now it is. I am a messy, crazy person; it takes a long time for me to learn the lessons of my own experiences. Luckily for me, I am better at breathing.

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