Last Love

BY RACHEL MCKIBBENS

Adam & Eve, detail

To my daughters I need to say:
Go with the one who loves you biblically.
The one whose love lifts its head to you
despite its broken neck. Whose body bursts
sixteen arms electric to carry you, gentle
the way old grief is gentle.
Love the love that is messy in all its too much,
The body that rides best your body, whose mouth
saddles the naked salt of your far gone hips,
whose tongue translates the rock language of
all your elegant scars.Go with the one who cries out for her tragic sisters
as she chops the winter’s wood, the one whose skin
triggers your heart into a heaven of blood waltzes.Go with the one who resembles most your father.
Not the father you can point out on a map,
but the father who is here, is your home,
is the key to your front door.Know that your first love will only be the first.
And the second and third and even fourth
will unprepare you for the most important:The Blessed. The Beast. The Last Love,

which is, of course, the most terrifying kind.
Because which of us wants to go with what can murder us?
Can reveal to us our true heart’s end and its thirty years
spent in poverty? Can mimic the sound of our bird-throated mothers,
replicate the warmth of our brothers’ tempers?
Can pull us out of ourselves until we are no longer sisters
or daughters or sword swallowers but, instead,
women who give and lead and take and want
and want and want and want,
because there is no shame in wanting.

And you will hear yourself say:

Last Love, I wish to die so I may come back to you
new and never tasted by any other mouth but yours.
And I want to be the hands that pull your children
out of you and tuck them deep inside myself until they are
ready to be the children of such a royal and staggering love.
Or you will say:

Last Love, I am old, and have spent myself on the courageless,
have wasted too many clocks on less-deserving men,
so I hurl myself at the throne of you and lie humbly at your feet.

Last Love, let me never roll out of this heavy dream of you,
let the day I was born mean my life will end
where you end. Let the man behind the church
do what he did if it brings me to you. Let the girls
in the locker room corner me again if it brings me to you.
Let this wild depression throw me beneath its hooves
if it brings me to you. Let me pronounce my hoarded joy
if it brings me to you. Let my father break me again
and again if it brings me to you.

Last love, I have let other men borrow your children. Forgive me.
Last love, I once vowed my heart to another. Forgive me.
Last Love, I have let my blind and anxious hands wander into a room
and come out empty. Forgive me.

Last Love, I have cursed the women you loved before me. Forgive me.
Last Love, I envy your mother’s body where you resided first. Forgive me.
Last Love, I am all that is left. Forgive me.
Last Love, I did not see you coming. Forgive me.

Last Love, every day without you was a life I crawled out of. Amen.
Last Love, you are my Last Love. Amen.
Last Love, I am all that is left. Amen.

I am all that is left.
Amen.

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Originally published in Muzzle Magazine.

In Case of Emergency

A thousand or million things go through your mind when you’re facing catastrophe. If the catastrophe is as imminent as a tornado bearing down on you, you have to leap into a ditch or run to the cellar, seek cover until the threat of death has passed. When you stand up and wipe the mud and rain out of your eyes and stand there shivering in the rain and see that your house is gone and your car is upside down in the field across the way, you realize that you have escaped with your life and that your life didn’t consist of all the stuff you had in your house–but it felt like it did. Then, like the woman I met who had this exact experience, you spend months and months trying to recover. It isn’t the stuff you’re trying to recover, either–it’s your sense of self and safety.

In 1994 my husband and I were visiting California and were awakened around 4:30 a.m. by an earthquake which later came to be called the Northridge earthquake. As we stood in the doorway of our hotel room on galloping floors, I remember how shock and terror gave way to disbelief and then a stubborn determination to survive. “We can’t die in this earthquake,” I exclaimed, “we have too many kids!” I knew that wasn’t our day to die.

Having been raised by a father in law enforcement, I had a survival mentality even during that emergency. We dressed quickly, threw all our stuff in suitcases, and carefully made our way down shifting hallways to the car we had rented. “Always rent a car,” my dad would advise, “because a vehicle can be a shelter, a weapon, and a means of escape.” Good old dad, always there when you need him.

Unlike the other survivors who stood partially clothed in the parking lot, we had our wits about us and a means of escape. We ascertained quickly that there would be no water or food available any time soon, since all the power was out and the restaurants had only frozen food. We escaped in our rented car along fizzured highways and bridges that we later learned were officially closed. There was no one along the way to stop us. We drove south along the Pacific coast highway to stay with my old college roommate, the only person we knew in the state at the time. From her we learned that people who live in California keep water, blankets, and a flashlight in the trunk of their cars in case of earthquake, very much like people in tornado alley maintain a similar state of preparedness. We do this so that, in case of emergency, we will survive long enough to get our bearings.

Maslow 1113

Anyone who has had a psychology course has heard of Abraham Maslow’s  hierarchy of human needs theory. Maslow studied psychologically healthy people and researched the lives of exceptional people to identify traits common to those he called “self-actualized”–those who manifest and fulfill “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Some theorists, such as evolutionary psychologist David Kendrick, have proposed improvements to Maslow’s hierarchy; others dismiss Maslow’s idea of a hierarchy, arguing that psychological growth is not linear or even always lasting. Even the most self-actualized human being, they say, can regress when his life, loved ones, or property are threatened.

Maslow knew that self-actualized people continue to need food, their health, and safety once they’ve become moral, creative, spontaneous, problem-solving realists. His point was, I think, that people need to have their physiological and safety needs met before they can address their needs for love, belonging, and esteem. We know that this is generally true. While cowering in the ditch with the tornado roaring overhead, I am not likely to be writing a poem, painting the scene, or solving any problem other than how to survive the storm. After I’ve survived and made sure my loved ones did, too, I will consider my long-term safety needs and begin to assess the property damage.

maslow's hierarchy of needs by you.

In Case of Emergency

When an emergency occurs or we are given terrible news, or something in our world shifts to threaten our survival, we find ourselves plummeting from zenith to nadir in short order. In my household when this happens, we often say “keep breathing,” a Buddhist reminder to be aware of and with our own breathing so that we will remain in the present rather than sacrificing the present moment for some imagined and feared future that may never come. During a crisis and for some time afterward, we treat ourselves as one should treat a sick person, for any event that has threatened our survival also makes us sick at heart. The Bible says that “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life,” (Proverbs 13:12). We have to take care of ourselves until we recover enough to eat fruit again.

When threatened, we take all the time we need to grieve what is threatened or has been lost or will be lost. Whether we grieve loss of life or limb or merely the loss of youth with each new wrinkle or gray hair, the loss is real. Accident, sickness, disease, aging, and catastrophe all remind us that we’re not actually in control of our lives or bodies, that things can go wrong that threaten our survival, and that even if we do survive we may not be healthy or secure or have enough resources. We may lose friends and family during the course of a crisis. We may never write another poem or paint another painting. I may not ever feel like playing the banjo again.

All Thy Breakers and Billows

When disaster is upon me, I feel overwhelmed, as if I could drown in it. Poets and mystics have expressed similar feelings during catastrophe, writing, “For You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3; Psalm 42:7).  All your breakers and billows passed over me. Isn’t that how you feel when calamity comes? Like the gusts of a hurricane or the roiling of an earthquake, the threat makes us reel and tears us from our moorings.

Surviving past disasters has given me tools, chief among them that I know how to pay attention to my breath and to be in the present moment and be at peace. As silly as it may sound to have breathing as a skill or tool or art, once you’ve tried simply paying attention to your breath and being with your own breath, you know that it is, in fact, an art to simply breathe. Biological necessity? Of course; but it is also an art that can take a person very deep, like a tap root into the universe.

In an emergency, we need to remember to eat well and to stay hydrated. We need to take care of all the physiological needs Maslow identified as foundational, and if we suffer in any area, we can and must take steps to try to relieve the suffering. If disease, illness, or disability rob us of our ability to eat, drink, sleep, or eliminate, then we work at recovering, or we figure out how to die with dignity.

In an emergency, we’re unbalanced and unhinged and we need to find a resting place. We want things to return to normal–homeostasis, a place of rest. We can try to return to the old normal, or we build a new normal. When my daughter was dying and after she died, I found that having other children who needed to be fed and dressed, bathed and cared for in everyday, routine ways an anchor. No matter how turbulent my emotions were, the routine was the same. Conventions such as saying “good morning” to one another, fixing the pot of tea, clearing away the dinner dishes, and even paying the bills became small blessings. A person has to be very ill before they must stop doing those sorts of things.

One of the needs that Maslow didn’t identify in his early pyramid is spiritual needs. Later in life, Maslow talked and wrote more about our spiritual needs, but by that time his theory had become popular and the highest human need, that of spirituality, wasn’t added to his hierarchy. Nevertheless, we need hope, beauty, joy, and love in our lives, too; as spiritual beings we become sick at heart if these needs aren’t met. If every day is a prison without hope, beauty, joy, or love, then we’re not fully alive or fully human. People who live in the most abject poverty or with great suffering regularly transcend these through faith and the cultivation of spiritual characteristics.

When I was younger and less developed as a human being, when the breakers and billows overwhelmed me, all I could see was breakers and billows. It took spiritual growth and discipline to be able to see the blue sky through the waves, to taste the salt and say that it was good, and even to anticipate the possibility that death was imminent and feel calm and serene in the face of it.

No Coward Soul is Mine

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.
O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life–that in me has rest,
As I–undying Life–have Power in Thee!
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.
Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.
There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou–Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

~ Emily Brontë

By the Throat

From time to time throughout life, things happen that get you by the throat and threaten to squeeze the life out of you. If you don’t find a way to break the stranglehold, you’ll stop breathing and die. The stranglehold can be the care of a disabled child, or that you long for a child and have been trying to get pregnant but can’t, or a protracted and costly legal problem, a disease or aftermath of an accident or the result of someone else’s negligence. What throttles you may come from an ex-spouse, a former friend, a child who turned out badly, an alcoholic parent, someone else’s addiction or your own, a layoff or lost job or a terrible economy that drains your profits and renders your business impotent.

Everyone has these terrible events and circumstances that come through their lives, but not everyone has them regularly or often, and some people seem to live much of their lives without suffering, only to have it suddenly come upon them when they’re in late middle age and have no coping skills. I know some people like that. Still, everyone experiences real suffering at some point (as opposed to neurotic or self-created suffering). What then? What does one do when disasater strikes and the suffering begins?

Breaking the Stranglehold

When disaster first strikes, you go reeling. Eventually, worries, anxiety, and despair can get a person in a stranglehold that can claim your soul. The fact is that what we fear the most is death, and your death and mine are inevitabilities. Being in romantic denial about the limited time we have in this lifetime is the gift of youth. As a commenter to one of my previous blogs wrote, opportunity and wide open horizons are the fantasies of youth. Though the American dream is one of unlimited opportunities and vast horizons, the truth is that this type of Jupiterian expansiveness decimated entire peoples, produced slaves, and has led to the highest depression, anxiety, and addiction rates in the western world. This type of expansiveness isn’t advisable, for we are ever only as large as the health of our bodies and the amount of money available to us. We all tend to forget this every day, which explains why Home Shopping Network and eBay are so wildly popular, for when we can buy stuff we feel powerful and are reminded that the possibilities are endless. This is the power of an addiction: it numbs us and deludes us into thinking that we have control when, in fact, it has us by the throat.

As Jo Coudert writes, “of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never lose.” You will never lose yourself, that is, as long as you hang onto yourself.

Hanging onto Oneself

When facing hardship, loss, or tragedy, we all tend to focus on what has happened to us–what’s in the past, in other words. We can’t change it, but we ruminate on it anyway. What of the things I can change? These things would include my own psychological state, the philosophy I live by, my values, my actions, where I put my body, what I put into my body, the thoughts I cling to and entertain, and the ones I dismiss.

Given the responsibility I have for my own life, I ask myself questions when I’m in crisis, questions such as: What are my psychological survival tools? What will help me maintain my sense of self? What will I need to believe, think, or do that will help me keep hope and joy alive? What will help me live with the sadness I feel all the time, the grief over my lost dreams, my lost life? How must I live if I want to be alive today? These are the questions to grapple with when crisis hits.

The Best of Times

My son gave me a song to hear yesterday, “The Best of Times” by Sage Francis, from his new album, Li(f)e (“lie with an ‘f’ in it”). I wanted to share it because it made me cry. If you’re visual, you can go to the web site or YouTube and watch the video for the song.

I’ve been thinking lately about life and lies, and about what I wrote about mentors last month. I’ve thought a lot, in fact–so much that I haven’t wanted to write anything. In a life full of fruits, I’m a root vegetable, brooding and buried deep and cold. So a song about life and album about lies comes at a good time, for after letting my thoughts lie in the cold, dark earth of my unconscious for awhile, I realized that I not only believe but am quite certain of a few things involving truth and people. The song had an uncanny connection to what I’ve been thinking, perhaps mostly because the artist is simply honest. He’s honest about himself and his life–and after all, what else can we be honest about? Other people’s lives? Other people’s selves? Hardly. We can only observe others; it’s our own selves we are supposed to be living.

Only the True-Hearted Say, “I’m Sorry”

What does my own self know and believe? What I know is that only conscious and even enlightened people can be honest and truthful. I also believe that only a real person can say and mean, “I’m sorry” because they can empathize with the other person’s suffering, or can humbly and honestly put themselves in someone else’s place. And, after thinking about it, I still deeply believe in the need for mutual accountability, transparency, and, yes, mentoring in relationships. These are some hallmarks of awake and loving personhood: Honesty. Empathy. Humility. Accountability.

Why? Why do I believe we need teachers or mentors, someone with insight who is willing to call us out when we bluff ourselves or others? I believe we need independent accountability mentors because when someone who needs me or uses me is in relationship to me, their need can blind them. I can mislead them or lie to them just as I mislead and lie to myself; but when I’m in relationship to someone who doesn’t need me but simply loves me, and has the courage to reflect truth, then and only then am I in a relationship where I can have my own flaws reflected to me with all sincerity. I have seen so many times when even inside a long-lived marriage, one spouse is a liar and the other is completely bamboozled. The bamboozled needs to be bamboozled and dazzled; if the bamboozled one wakes up to the truth, then the truth is going to need to be dealt with. Since the truth is often messy and can cause suffering, a lie is easier to deal with. And so the web of deceit continues, and anyone who won’t participate in spinning or maintaining it or in catching prey in it will be summarily dismissed.

We Need One Another

In Proverbs it says “deceitful are the kisses of an enemy, but faithful the wounds of a friend.” In half a century I’ve learned a lot through experience and book learning, and from being a counselor and mentor, mother, wife and friend, and what I have seen is that a friend who’ll tell you the truth is invaluable. A mentor who sees you but loves you and is willing to hang in there with you while pointing out your deadly mistakes is worth his or her weight in gold. So, after thinking about what Dr. Hollis told us a few months ago about the fundamental need we have for accountability and mentoring, I have to agree with him. The need to be part of a community of those growing toward consciousness, and also to have mentors or teachers is a central tenet of all our religions and there is good reason for that. Otherwise it’s too easy to be self-deluded. We need others to remind us of so much–that we are lovable, that we need teaching, that we resist being humble and teachable, that we are liars and yet, at the same time, we’re also so good.

Victims

I’ve known and continue to know some neurotic and personality-disordered people, and without exception they share the traits of being unable to empathize, of being defensive and unteachable; they are unable to think outside whatever box they live in, and they are dishonest. They avoid suffering like the plague and they prefer a pretty lie to the ugly truth. They generally can’t say, “I’m sorry,” which means that they don’t take personal responsibility for outcomes. They are victims, even when they don’t whine, and even when their finger-pointing is subtle. They don’t participate in solving problems and indeed don’t approach life as though it has solvable problems. People are problems for the fuzzy-headed and wonky-hearted. They don’t call a spade a spade and consider it rude to be honest or to have spontaneous feelings and reactions. They are often measured people with textbook approaches to life, but no real joy, passion, or suffering.

I love the song my son shared with me because the artist says therapy couldn’t break (the real) self, that therapy and life never taught him a word to “insure safety.” People tend to want safety and to avoid suffering. But safety and comfort are impermanent if we rely on outward circumstances to give us those feelings. Safety and comfort arise from conscious relation to oneself, others, and to the Ineffable Mystery we call G*d.

It was beautiful
It was brutal
It was cruel
It was business as usual
It was heaven
It was hell

That’s life for the alive.

As If It Would Never End

An airport is a vacuum, a place of an unwelcome sort of timelessness where one can introvert and come to three hours later like someone who has been knocked unconscious.

I’ve been knocked unconscious.

Lately it has been impossible to get the sort of time alone I need. I wonder from time to time this year just how much time alone I’d need to feel repaired and rested, restored to a place where an abundance flowed out again (if it ever did). My feet planted in the earth up to mid-calf, I might stay from one winter solstice to the next before it was enough. It has taken this long for me to reach full height and breadth; now all that’s left is to go deep.

I feel the cold dirt between my toes and it’s very good.

When I go out of town every month to my Jungian studies program, I feel giddy with joy by the time I’m ready to leave. Every moment I spend by myself is a resurrection, even when spent in the airport, in the limousine, in the hotel room with its muted lighting and mocha-colored walls. Every single bit is like life was when time stood still.

Building villages of pebbles, stones, and sticks behind the hydrangea bushes.

Lying full length along a branch of my favorite tree, mesmerized by the swirls and eddies of the creek below, glinting green, brown.

In bed with my husband, newlyweds, my arm thrown across his chest on a Saturday morning, the smell of the magnolias coming through the screens.

Nursing my first child in the middle of the night, her lashes dark and lush against skin made silvery by the moonlight.

As if it would never end.

That I can feel such a magical sense of time in these places full of travelers, weariness, dirt, conglomerations, noise, hustle, churning, banging, squeaks, dongs, crackling speakers, wheels that go whop-whop-whep-whop, crying children, a cacophony of languages shows just how long it has been since I have been able to sit at my own hearth and stir the ashes.

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